Dr. David Terriff, MD
The Fire Alarm Is Ringing
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
The fire alarm is ringing but there is no smoke in the building
This is a post about anxiety using a fire alarm metaphor.
Anxiety is a normal and essential emotion. We need anxiety to keep us safe and to tell us when we are in danger. If we didn't have anxiety about dangerous situations then we would take excessive risks and put our lives in jeopardy. Anxiety is uncomfortable so that we don't ignore it.
This is where we come to the fire alarm metaphor.
Fire alarms keep us safe and save lives. They are loud and they demand our attention. We can either leave the building when the fire alarm goes off or try to silence the alarm. If you silence the alarm it often starts ringing again. Fire alarms are designed to be very sensitive and they often give false signals and they can ring when there is no smoke in the building. Anxiety is similar. Our anxiety often gets activated when there is no real danger. We often try to ignore the anxiety (silence the alarm), but it usually comes back. We also try to avoid what makes us anxious (leaving the building), but that only works if there is a real threat that we can escape. If there is no real threat and there is no smoke in the building and the alarm keeps going off then we eventually have to go back into the building and deal with the real issue.
Anxiety becomes a problem when we over estimate risks and underestimate our ability to deal with it.
As an example, are you spending a lot of time watching the news or getting information about the pandemic on social media? Do you think that you are accurately perceiving the risks for yourself and your family? Over consumption of news or social media may be leading you to predict catastrophic outcomes in the future. Remember that nobody can predict the future or control the future. Uncertainty is hard for everyone. Accepting uncertainty is something we must all do.
Here are some helpful tips to build your tolerance of uncertainty:
A common assumption when people have anxiety is that they can't cope with it. Anxiety feels uncomfortable for everyone. It is meant to get your attention, but anxiety itself isn't dangerous. It is your interpretation of your situation that is leading to the anxiety. Remember a thought is just a thought and that just because you think something doesn't mean it's true.
When your mind is racing with worry thoughts then is it important to ask yourself a few questions. Am I perceiving this situation accurately? Is there a more balanced way of thinking about this situation? Is this a problem that I can solve? Do I need to ask for help to solve this problem? If this problem can't be solved then do I want to spend my time worrying about it right now?
Trying to ignore worry thoughts doesn't work. It's like someone telling you over and over again to try not to think about pink elephants. Avoidance doesn't work either. Avoidance actually just perpetuates anxiety. The best way to deal with worry thoughts is to disconnect from them, observe them without judgement and let them pass. This is where mindfulness can be a very valuable tool.
Here is a helpful mindfulness exercise to try:
Another video about the value of mindfulness in everyday life:
Don't forget to click on the RESOURCES tab at the top of the page to find links to lots of other helpful mental health resources.