From Anxiety to Security

From Anxiety to Security

In evolutionary terms, why did we become anxious?

A short reason is that it helps us to have grandchildren. Our animal ancestors who could experience a sense of alarm at a threat or the risk of losing rewards were more likely to survive. These creatures lived more often than creatures who were not as worried. The blissed-out squirrel or lizard or bird that doesn’t pick up the slither in the bushes gets eaten.

In an evolutionary framework, anxiety is adaptive. It helps us do one of the fundamental things any organism needs to do if it wants to see the sunrise: approach, avoid, or move on. That’s what anxiety is all about.

Approach means essentially to eat or mate with. Avoidance is one pole of the classic fight or flight reaction. Moving on simply means looking for something more rewarding to approach. Whether it’s an amoeba that engulfs a smaller microbe or a sponge that’s filtering sea water all day long, taking in what’s good and ejecting what’s not, or an infant tasting food she doesn’t like and spitting it out, at the most basic level anxiety serves to trigger one of these three basic responses.

How does the brain accomplish this task to know when to approach, when to avoid and when to move on?

  1. Label the phenomenon. This initial framing tells us that rustling in the grass is a snake and we respond accordingly. Alternatively, haven’t we all had the experience of believing there was a snake in the grass when it was just a rope? Those frightening sounds turn out to be wind benignly pushing branches against the side of the house.We label things which may not be threats as threatening based on our history. Or we amplify them as threats. Identification is shaped by personal experience.
  2. Apply a feeling tone, which is not emotion but the basic sensation in experience of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Two parts of the brain in particular, the amygdala and the hippocampus in the limbic system, are constantly and quickly labeling things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.
  3. Activate the sympathetic nervous system and a cascade of hormones of the hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenal axis. You can feel this cascade in your body within seconds, but this can stay in your body for minutes, sometimes hours.Just being emotional is stressful. You’ve probably had the experience of having an argument or thinking something bad was going to happen, then working through the argument or realizing that the bad event wasn’t going to occur, but your body was still affected, sometimes hours later.

The Big Six

There are six basic reactions to threats or frustration in pursuit of goals or desires. The big six happen in the body, and involve subtle patterns of organization. For example, if you’re in fight mode, blood will flow into your chest muscles and arms. If you’re fleeing, it’s the thigh muscles that get an increase in blood flow. These are objective phenomena that can be measured, and are:

  1. Fight
  2. Flight
  3. Freeze
  4. Appease
  5. Tend
  6. Befriend

These basic responses to threatening situations, which we share with other species, have gotten a bad rap. We tend to think of them as something to avoid or overcome, especially the first three.

However, we can mine these basic patterns of reaction for good coping skills. After all, they got us to the top of the food chain. They’re what we have learned over billions of years of evolution. How can we apply these to become more skillful dealing with things that make us fearful, anxious, worried or alarmed?

Healthy Coping Skills for the Big 6

Bring to mind one or more things that make you anxious. It may be conflict with someone you love, a difficult challenge at work or something you’d like to do that frightens you. Now, take a few minutes to think about ways to bring healthy coping skills to bear on this situation. Below you will find suggestions for each of the 6 basic reactions.


  • Speaking up and naming what is true; “speaking truth to power”
  • Saying no
  • Setting boundaries
  • Setting conditions or ground rules for your own participation
  • Arguing with anxiety-provoking beliefs inside you


  • Leaving what is not working
  • Looking elsewhere for what will support you
  • Stepping back, disengaging, going to “separate corners”
  • Abandoning anxious thoughts inside you


What does it mean to freeze in response to a threat? What is served by freezing? You might think, for example, of the rabbit in the underbrush. If the rabbit freezes the hawk can’t see it. One advantage of freezing is that it buys you time for more of your resources to come forward.

  • Stopping, halting, “time out,” “suspending operations”
  • Observing
  • Silence
  • Not making a bad situation worse, not being provocative
  • Buying yourself time
  • Restraint (sila)
  • Waiting, patience, letting things come
  • Creating space for new possibilities


By appeasing individuals, the situation, or your own internal dynamic, you may be able to more skillfully move forward

  • Acknowledging their grievances
  • Taking maximum personal responsibility
  • Genuine apology (for what deserves one)
  • Making agreements for the future, committing to being more skillful
  • Making amends for the past
  • “Gracious gifts”
  • Doing what you can to reduce their anxieties (which could fuel their aggression)

The skill of empathy is embedded in everything that comes under the heading of appeasement in the wholesome sense. Empathy gives us a lot of valuable information, so we benefit ourselves when we feel empathy for another. The most fundamental and valuable sense we give to another in any communication is the sense that they have been understood. Signal received. I got the message. Without this, no communication loop can be closed. Empathy is the basis for all human exchange.


Increase your coping through nurturing, healing, caring.

  • Building up your own resources over time applicable to the specific issue, threat, etc.
  • Building up other resources, wherever you can
  • Nurturing, healing, caring for the factors in others that make you anxious (so they diminish)


How can befriending help you to cope better? Something in particular to think about is befriending yourself, particularly those parts of yourself that feel frightened. Often we’re ashamed of these and scorn them. What happens when you befriend them?

  • Accept the reality of what makes you anxious
  • Make friends with what frightens you (as appropriate, to be sure)
  • Recognize and be kind to the inner child/inner being of those who make you anxious
  • Befriend your own inner child/inner being
  • Bring a sense of humor to a difficult situation

When you reflect, when you step back and get a feeling for what it’s like to be you ask the question: Who are you when you cope with these difficulties? What are some of the internal senses of yourself, what’s activated or enlivened when you cope with things in the different ways we’ve outlined?

Resilience and capability are feelings, experiences in the body, states of being. A few hundred years from now neuroscientists will probably have a picture of the brain in a state of capability. Your task is to remember that feeling of capability so you can trigger it, or go back home to it again.

At the deepest level, below the level of all these tools, is the hand that wields the tool. It’s that sense of capability, of leaning into a situation, addressing it, mobilizing inner resources to deal with it. What’s does this feel like?

The important point is that no matter which coping skill you choose, there’s always something you can do. Even in freezing there is the powerful state of creating space. In freezing, we’re actually creating space to make room for different possibilities The feeling of learned helplessness is only a few layers deep, and we can change it. If we can hold on to the feeling of capability, we can learn to transfer this from one area of our lives to another.


There are many ways to deal with anxiety. There’s a limit to what we can cover in a single article, but with intention you can bring these practices into your life. For example, yo could think: “For the next week or month I will make this skillful means manifest at some level in some new way in my life.” Feel the capability, confidence and faith involved in doing that. That’s all it takes. And so bow to yourself for having the insight and the courage to carry this on.


From Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. 
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.


Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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