Fire is a unique metaphor for anxiety in that it ranges the entire good/ bad continuum. When you lose your job, you get “fired”. When something doesn’t go your way, it is said to “backfire”. When things are out of control they have “caught fire”, and when you learn more than you ever wanted to learn about something in a difficult way, you undergo a “baptism by fire”.
On the other hand, when we want passion, energy and investment we are encouraged to get “fired up”. When an athlete is having the game of their life they are considered to be, “on fire”. When something is working we are encouraged to, “add fuel to the fire”, and as the great Jerry Lee Lewis explained, when you shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, too much love drives a man insane, “Goodness gracious, great balls of fire”. Fire, while potentially dangerous, is also incredibly valuable. To purge impurities from metal they must be refined through the refiner’s fire. Lose control of that fire and you will get hurt.
Anxiety is not that different from fire. It can be scary, painful and frustrating. It can hurt us and those we love. However, at its core it is a very intentional and necessary part of who we are. Consider the role of anxiety in a life-threatening situation like running away from a threat. The sympathetic nervous system is activated under stress and causes a fight, flight or freeze reaction. When it is activated the adrenal glands release adrenaline into the bloodstream and the heart beats faster pushing blood into the muscles, and vital organs. We begin to breath heavily and efficiently making our brains more alert and our senses sharper. We are then able to move away from the threat and get to safety or protect ourselves by fighting off the danger.
Anxiety and the sympathetic response system are critical when we are confronting true threats. However, they can be unwelcomed and debilitating when the perceived threat is not actually life threatening. Take for example daily experiences like getting out of bed, ordering food at a restaurant, talking on the phone or taking a test. Many individuals are not able to participate in these common daily activities due to a physiological response to perceived threats that are not life threatening.
At Cascade Academy we help adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 18 confront their anxiety, and to embrace life with courage and joy. This is done through individualized, purposeful exposures to their perceived threats that empower our students to build self-efficacy and experience mastery. As that mastery is generalized, confidence is built, and the sympathetic stress responses no longer generates debilitating control over our actions.
Uncontrolled anxiety, like uncontrolled fire is powerful and can be scary. Understood, it is a beautiful tool that blesses our lives, giving us all permission to embrace life with courage and joy.