ANXIETY – Upon sensing that we are somehow disconnected or separate, we become anxious that the disconnection could lead to danger, or even to our ceasing to BE. It is the sense of connectedness that makes us feel safe. Our greatest desire, then, becomes reconnection. Anxiety, whether mild or severe, is the backdrop to all other human problems.
The Path to Disconnection begins with Anxiety. Dr. Hendrix says that anxiety is the backdrop for all other human problems, and that makes sense when we understand the pervasive role anxiety plays in our lives.
We all come into this world from a place of complete connection. We are inextricably connected to our mother in both the physical and the emotional sense.
Once out in the world, infants are full of wonder and curiosity. They’re taking in everything in their environment, touching it, looking at it intently, putting into their mouth, and tasting it – using all their senses to learn and discover all this amazing new stuff. The baby happily explores her world from the safety of her sense of connection to her mother – her known sense that as part of her mom, she will be protected and attended to, so her only concern now is to learn and grow.
Then the inevitable happens; mom gets distracted, or has a fight with her partner, or in some other unintentional way is not immediately available when baby needs her attention, and bam! Baby senses disconnecting. It’s just that simple and that quick, but it makes a deep impression on the infant, who, in that moment, fears that she’s no longer part of or connected to the mom. Her instinct for survival is activated and she becomes engulfed in fear for her very existence. She wonders why mom isn’t there and begins to do everything in her limited power to restore that life-giving sense of connection. Imagine the infant in the restaurant when he wants food NOW and mom isn’t instantly responsive – that ear-piercing shriek is not only his way of getting attention and food; it’s his attempt at refocusing mom so he can feel that sense of connection with her once again. For a 2.5-minute lesson in how this happens to us all, check out this link to the Still Face Experiment, conducted by Harvard Child Development Unit Director, Dr. Ed Tronick, in 1978.
This process is one we all go through and that influences our behavior in virtually every relationship.
The bottom line is that when we experience those early episodes of disconnection, anxiety is triggered in us and we become obsessed about re-establishing that connection. Re-connecting is our sole focus because our still-developing brain is telling us that disconnecting equals death; we believe we are literally in danger of ceasing to exist. As we struggle to find ways to regain that connection, we use more and more desperate means to get our caregiver’s attention, running the gambit from frowny face to full-on shrieking, to eventually collapsing in a heap, sobbing and unable to see or feel anything else.
It makes me anxious just reading about it.
As we’ll discuss in subsequent articles, it is this anxiety around feeling disconnected, and the impulse to find connection again, that drives us along our own path to disconnection, even into adulthood. While it’s a pattern that is well-established in most of us, changing it, and therefore greatly improving our relationships, is possible. Safe Conversations offers a few simple skills you can incorporate into your everyday conversations to calm anxiety and connect with someone beyond the differences that trigger it.
In our next message, we’ll see how this deep-seated anxiety causes us to become self-absorbed and the impact that has on all our relationships.