The Emotional Engines of Anxiety

Anxiety is an emotional and physical reaction to a perceived fear, threat or challenge that often stems from uncertainty about potential circumstances or situations. In short, anxiety is the fear of uncertainty.

If you suffer from anxiety and are interested in calming it, you may have considered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I have found CBT to be an effective way to help those of us who struggle with anxiety. However, I also feel we cheat ourselves out of a deeper understanding and greater peace unless we delve a bit more deeply into the roots of our anxiety than is usually done with CBT alone. Instead of practicing techniques to quell your anxiety, let your anxiety be a guide into your psyche.

First, take note of any negative beliefs you hold about yourself related to the anxiety. Be mindful that these are just thoughts and in most cases likely not true. These are the fictions we carry around about ourselves. For example, you learn that your company will be going through a downsizing. Without any real data you make the assumption that you will be laid off. This may trigger a negative belief that you are not good enough and that is why the company will lay you off. That is your emotional engine running you off the road.

Second, notice where you feel the anxiety in your body. Are your shoulders tense? Do you feel nausea? Now think back to other times and situations where you have had these thoughts and physical sensations. It may be helpful to write down these memories in a journal. You will likely begin to see a pattern emerge among the memories. Notice the emotions you have. Go beneath your anxiety. Do the memories evoke, fear, guilt or shame? These three powerful emotions may likely be the engines of your anxiety. A closer look at each may illuminate the motors and triggers of your anxious mind.


What are the things you fear the most? Is it the end of a relationship? Illness? Job loss? Each of these fears drives anxiety. Consider the fear of abandonment. Some people’s anxiety can be triggered when their partner doesn’t arrive for a dinner date or doesn’t return a text message in what the person feels is a reasonable amount of time. The anxious mind can begin to weave a tale of abandonment. You begin to think that your partner will leave you or that he is angry with you and wants to punish you. These thoughts trigger anxiety stemming from the deeper fear that your loved one will leave you. Many of us have known abandonment: the father that deserts our family, the mother that dies, or the partner that leaves us for a new lover. These traumas leave deep wounds, wounds that are opened when we perceive that we will be abandoned. The fictional stories we make up in our heads can often be traced back to the real and true traumas we experienced. The brain and the body remember the trauma and start the ignition of the anxious mind.


Guilt is an emotional reaction we have when we believe we have done something bad or wronged another person. It can be a challenging and complex emotion to tap into since we hold it so deeply within our subconscious. For example, I have worked with many clients who feel guilt and shame (see below) about being gay or lesbian. They have grown up being fed a steady diet of myths that to be gay is to be bad. Many of these men and women feel that they if come out and identify as gay, they will be disloyal to their family and loved ones. They also fear (see above) being ostracized or disowned. So the gay man keeps his healthy romantic and sexual desires to himself and continues to feel guilt if he wishes to express these desires. Since guilt is a difficult emotion to express (keep in mind the gay man is also holding onto his secret), it surfaces in an anxious mind. The guilt coupled with the ongoing fear and shame of being discovered as gay creates powerfully strong emotional and physical reactions. If you are struggling with guilt, identify the things in life you feel guilty for. Examine the rationality of these things. Take responsibility for your part in these guilt-ridden situations and make amends if you feel that would help you recover. Do not take ownership for those parts of the situation you did not create.


Many of us struggle with social anxiety. This form of anxiety is often rooted in the negative belief that we are not good enough as we are. We falsely believe others are better than us or that no one will like us as we are. Where do these beliefs come from? Perhaps this was the messaging you received as a child from parents, caregivers, or bullies. Try and recall what was said about you. Next, think about what you believed about yourself. Lastly, what was the truth? For example, as a kid you may have been told your were “stupid” by your parents because you struggled in school. You may have come to believe this about yourself and felt shame about it. The truth may have been that you struggled in school because your brain was not ready to process the information being taught, or that you were not given enough support and encouragement from your parents and teachers. If that is true, do you still need to hold onto that shame? Have compassion for your younger self. Maybe you suffered from emotional, physical or sexual abuse. The trauma of abuse often leaves a child with a profound, if not always conscious, sense that they are flawed. “I did something wrong. I must be bad, I deserved the abuse I received.” Remember, most young children are egocentric and in the context of being abused truly do believe they deserve the treatment they get. As healthy adults we can see the irrationality of this. The irrational thoughts leave the child feeling that no one will love them as they are. That is shame. This belief stays deeply embedded in their souls. As adults it can often be triggered in social situations. That is social anxiety.

As you explore the deeper roots of these emotional engines, practice self-compassion and reach out for support. If you can tap into what lies beneath your anxiety, you may be able to calm and stabilize yourself. Since so many of our emotional reactions stem from memories and traumas from our past, keep in mind that that was then, this is now.