Trust and Anxiety, how come they can’t ever get together?
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened. Worrying is like paying a debt you don’t owe. I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened.” ~ Mark Twain
My work is to grow high trust environments between individuals, teams and groups. We seek ways of reconciliation. We explore ways to make amends. It happens!! Through care and continuity, we scaffold the process. It works! Not at the flick of a switch. Rather it works as we nurture and tend the relationships we are caring for organically. We can restore the threads of relationship which have been broken and mend them. It is possible and this piece of writing is an explicit depiction explaining how this unfolded with an individual who, when I met them, was extremely alienated from almost everyone in their environment.
I have noticed that one of the most powerful forces that destroys and undermines trust in a person’s way of relating is anxiety. In anxiety eyes narrow, tension grows, readiness tightens as fight or flight or pretend is mustered. It appears that anxiety is a barrier to the kind of trust that opens one’s heart and relaxes one into feeling heard, feeling seen, feeling appreciated and feeling respected. The other type of trust, the one based on fear and expectation of danger and patterns of negative relationship, is not the trust that inspires feelings of safety. It is a very convoluted and strange human trait, that the devil you know is better than what you don’t know. ‘I trust that you will hurt me if I don’t do what you tell me to do, but you do look after me and I do have a home and so the family violence is better than not knowing what might happen if I try to get out of the entanglement. It feels safer than the thought of strangers who have never cared about me.’ So I make excuses for you and accept your violence and there is a trust in that. This needs to be disentangled so that human rights to safety predominate.
The question became clear when I experienced people’s emotional hijacking. I noticed a pattern, that even when small, but unexpected, unplanned events happened to people, they were thrown off kilter and often become reactive. It was as Daniel Goleman had explained in his book Emotional Intelligence, they became Emotionally Hijacked.
I realised that I must understand what it is that gets people stuck in these patterns of sudden reactivity, emotionally hijacked. There is little good that comes from this kind of reactivity. At best it creates stress and emotional tension, and at worst it leads to explosive aggression and meltdowns. What is going on here, how DO brains work in the areas of Anxiety?
Questions and explorations:
I asked myself the following key questions: can high trust environments make a difference to reduce anxiety?
Is there a relationship between trust and anxiety, either positive or negative? If so, what is the dynamic going on here?
What hormones are produced with anxiety and what hormones with trust?
What motivates, what drives the process?
It is unlikely we’ll ever get a full understanding of this complex process, the dynamics between anxiety and trust as it plays out across the neurons and dendrites of our brain. My question to myself is, how can I maximise my understanding, by finding the most effective ways to grow and develop relational wisdom. This wisdom informs the way we are in our relationships. In it’s most simple form this wisdom is about showing up. It’s about being present. It’s about being prepared to stand with the pain and the conflict and the meltdown. And for the other to know, in a visceral way, that we will keep coming back.
Anxiety and Trust – can these two even co-exist at the same time in the brain? I don’t think they can. Anxiety and Trust are two forces that appear to cancel each other out, depending on which is dominating. From my experience they cannot co-exist together.
Is trust, anxiety’s opposite emotion? Not always, because, to contradict myself, there are a few circumstances, in which certain types of trust, can co-exist with anxiety. The obvious one is when we are actually in danger and a guide or a police-person or a fire-person is telling you what to do to stay safe, or get to safety. We trust their experience and do what they tell us. Except if they tell us to remain calm because we are actually safe. Then, our anxiety will trump even the most experienced leader, and although we will do what we are told to get to safety, our amydala, the survive fight and flight part of the brain, will remain irrationally pumping adrenalin and cortisal, even though we’ve been told we are safe.
This kind of anxiety and trust may be a powerful concoction that helps groups survive extremely dangerous circumnstances. It could also be argued that this type of situation is less about anxiety than it is about fear. When trust is linked to fear, we have some of the most evil groups in history, from Mafie Gangs to Nazi Germany wreaking havoc across society. When what is predictable because of oppression, becomes what you trust to happen, and that becomes our way of staying safe in an overtly unsafe environment, founded on oppression, we have one of the most toxic emotional conditions that humans have lived in, one from which many freed concentration camp prisoners, found it physically very hard to separate.
The second example found in day to day life, seems to be complex and nuanced. Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” It is true that impermanence, change, ageing and other realities can result in an attitude that the world is a dangerous place. It is a few steps from Hillel’s attitude of empowerment – own your life, to being a victim of it by concluding that one should live with anxiety as a survival mechanism. For example, see how the characters in Woody Allen’s movies grapple with their anxiety. You might hear them saying, ‘If I am anxious, I will be hyper alert to the dangers of life. Anxiety will protect me from harm. It will keep me alert to what might go wrong. Ultimately it is clear, I am the only one I can trust to keep me out of danger. So I trust that there is a need to be anxious because being anxious heightens my senses which protects me from potential dangers. So, when I am anxious, I trust myself more than others to help me survive.’ This seems a convoluted attitude, but also for some, it’s their version of common sense.
The BURNING question!! Why though do I need protection? What is my anxiety actually protecting me from? It appears that the dominant and primal demand of the subconscious, informs an emotion which relates to the fact ~ life is uncertain ~ danger could be lurking ~ what if I have a coronery? ~ what if I have an annurism? the tree branch could fall on the car! People have strokes when stock markets crash! These things happen! They do! Our attitude can produce a dis-ease, an emotional dissonance which says: ‘even though I am in this moment safe, events that could happen are uncertain and possibly dangerous. There could be threats that I don’t know about which might harm me’.
When this kind of dynamic gets entrenched in our reactions to life, it works persistently both on a conscious and a subconscious level, because, to address it and disentangle from it, takes time and confidence, understanding and perceptiveness, friends and allies, purposefulness and wisdom. Then, slow and organic change can take place. It is not a quick fix solution simply resolved by a decision of will. This intentional untying of the knots does work – but usually with incremental improvements along with inevitable setbacks. It is natural and it is normal to have a few steps forward and a few back. Thus, an intentional drive to transform makes the difference and leads to enduring change that creates a confidence that is built on a foundation of rock. It’s solid!
(read on into part 2 ~ Measuring)