I saw a nice little tableau acted out before me yesterday on my way home from exercising on the beach. A family was walking toward the beach. Mom, Dad and the oldest son were all clumped together, but straggling behind about 80 feet were two younger sons. One appeared to be age 7, and the other boy, maybe age 5. The 5 year-old had frozen on the sidewalk and refused to budge. The older brother was trying to convince him to move and follow the family. Nothing seemed to be working. Biking by, I heard the older brother urgently whisper, “Willy, come on, there’s a stranger coming.” Sure enough a man was coming up on the sidewalk behind them. By then I passed them, so I don’t know if he moved or is still standing there, but it made me think about relationships, anxiety, attachment, and safety.

One of the reasons love can conquer anxiety is we are “hardwired” to attach to others and be in living in community. We are mammals after all, and mammals are social, pack animals. Though we are much more than animals, we have similar needs. A beloved other, someone from our family/pack, can bring peace and calm to a bad situation. But if a stranger approaches, our anxiety can skyrocket. What happens in our brains? Why the difference?

Once again it helps to understand the 3 brain systems. Our recognition and understanding of the identity of another person, resides in our Cerebral Cortex and in the Limbic systems. So, if we are doing well and feeling safe approaching and attaching, the appearance of a stranger may elicit healthy interest or curiosity. But, if we are in anxious-avoid mode, this will not be the case.

In our Primitive Brain/Brain stem, things appear very differently. It’s almost like being blindfolded. We are not aware of the identity of any person approaching us. Our Cerebral Cortex knows this is Aunt Sally, or the neighbor we enjoy, or the hot, new co-worker from next door. However, the Primitive/brain stem only sorts people into a few categories. I.e., Are they safe, dangerous, do we know them, do we love them, do we hate them, do we want to fight them, or have sex with them, etc. So stranger danger is not a joke to the Primitive Brain.

When we are feeling safe, considering attaching to a new person is natural, even if it that someone is a stranger. Every dear friend we ever had, was at one time a stranger to us. In this mode we are open and curious about the new person. As we engage in a bit of social interaction, all parts of our brains are deciding what we feel about this person. If we enjoy the interaction, we will leave with some positive feelings toward them.

However, if we are in anxiety-avoid mode, or when we have been programmed to “fear the stranger”, we approach any new person with anxiety, skepticism and suspicion. Our ability to see them clearly is clouded by the avoid-system in our primitive brains. Why does this matter? Well, if you join a new company, move to new neighborhood, find a new love, etc., all of these options include meeting and growing some kind of attachment to new human beings. Initially all are strangers to you, but soon to be part of your everyday life.

So, remember this information if you have to get to know some new people with whom you will be spending some time. Be sure you are relaxed and feeling safe and good. Let the Safety-attaching mode be strong in your brain. Then, the avoid system of your brain will not be registering danger signals. This way you have a better chance of really getting to know these people, AND, it will help you make a better first impression. Coming off as aloof, angry, or suspicious, will not endear you to the people who will populate your new life.

Going deeper:

1. What is your most prevalent attitude toward people who you don’t know yet?

2. This week notice what your bodily responses to people who you don’t know? If you feel anxious, try to identify what causes this feeling inside of you. Is it old messages, a prior bad experience, or something else?

To learn how to evict the anxiety in your life, join one of my 3-week anxiety reduction workshops. Go to http://www.sdtraumatherapy.com for more information. Mention this blog when you sign up and receive a 10% discount! Happy Loving.

One thought on “Love & Anxiety #6: Stranger Danger!

  1. Hi Wanda,

    My response would have been “who has taught this 7 year old to be prejudiced against strangers!” But cooler heads prevailed and you turned it into a lovely lesson.

    Trying to see the world through the right eyes.
    In Barbados for 22 hours. Going well so far — my colleague got plenty of unsolicited help in finding Cuban cigars. People overheard, were kind, and let him know what they knew. Later, a woman who overheard approached me with more useful information for my colleague.

    Thank you,

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