The Link Between Anxiety and Shame: Q&A With Author Rex Briggs

March 20, 2012 at 10:37 am  •  Posted in Anxiety by  •  0 Comments


Rex Briggs, MSW is a nationally recognized speaker, trainer and author of the book Transforming Anxiety, Transcending Shame. Rex Briggs has developed an innovative approach to the treatment of anxiety and stress-related conditions, depression and effective stress management. Through his clinical practice Rex Briggs has helped hundreds of us move from lives of fear and lethargy to lives that are full  of excitement and empowerment. Rex Briggs has specialized in treating, speaking and training others about anxiety, depression and stress-management for 30 years. Rex Briggs has been a featured speaker at the Anxiety Disorders Association of America Conference for almost 20 years, in addition to speaking and training engagements throughout the world.

Q. Mr. Briggs, how shame and anxiety are linked?

Whenever human beings are nearly ready to approach a situation in their life, they do an unconscious evaluation of that situation to determine “do I have what it takes to deal with this situation?”  If they determine that they do, they feel relaxed and comfortable. If, on the other hand, their evaluation determines accurately or not that they don’t have what it takes to deal with the situation or they are not sure if they have what it takes, they really have no other option than to feel anxious and uncomfortable. Our shame is what leads us to believe we don’t have what it takes and colors our self-confidence.  While every human has some shame, people who suffer with excessive anxiety have more than their fair share of shame.

Q. How is anxiety different from every day stress?

Anxiety is one of the emotional responses to everyday stress. When people who suffer with excessive stress show up at my office, sometimes they think they want to eliminate all their anxiety. I help them to realize that we need healthy anxiety for four reasons.  1) healthy anxiety is necessary to keep us safe; 2) healthy anxiety mobilizes our body in response to danger; 3) Healthy anxiety encourages us to learn new skills and expand our repertoire and successfully dealing with the challenges of life; and 4) healthy anxiety can help us by being a signal flag for unfinished business.

  • Healthy anxiety is necessary to keep us safe. For example, if we were to get into our cars with snow or ice on the ground and we would slip and slide a bit as we took off for an appointment, our anxiety would rise. All our anxiety is attempting to convey to us is “be careful.”
  • Healthy anxiety mobilizes our body in response to danger. Back in the days when we all lived in caves, there were a lot of things that we needed to do to protect ourselves when we left our cave. Sometimes it made sense to carry a club so that if we were to meet up with saber tooth tigers, we could either choose to defend ourselves with that club or to drop that club and run. We still have saber tooth tigers in our world, except now we call them “bosses,” “deadlines,” “in-laws,” and other challenges, but while we used to either defend ourselves or run in response to danger, now we sit and stew.  Moreover, it’s important to realize that our body responds to real and imagined danger. Many people who suffer with excessive anxiety are extremely creative people and much of what we stew over is danger that we conjure up in our mind that never happens, and is, thus, wasted energy.
  • Healthy anxiety encourages us to learn new skills and expand our repertoire and successfully dealing with the challenges of life. If a person is given a task to do something that challenges their capability, such as giving a public presentation, our anxiety will certainly rise. There are two main responses to this challenge. Many people with excessive anxiety avoid the challenge or immediately respond with “I can’t,” and as soon as they avoid the situation, their anxiety level is reduced. The problem with this is that it works. Why is that a problem, you say? Because if we get that reduction in anxiety by avoiding something, the next time we are faced with something challenging, our response might be to avoid that situation and many others as well and our life just begins to get smaller and our self-confidence continues to plummet as we avoid more and more in our lives.
  • Healthy anxiety can help us by being a signal flag for unfinished business. Healthy anxiety can be a signal flag for unfinished business. People like predictability, but life being what it is, is rarely predictable. Often families go through difficult situations, i.e., losing a family member, a surprise and sudden job change, or perhaps a divorce, and because the adults in the family are going through that stress as well, they may forget to talk to their children about it. But since nobody talks to the child, the unintended message to the child might, “I guess my feelings about this are not important,” and the emotions get stuffed and, perhaps, even forgotten about, but later in life when something stirs similar feelings. For example, perhaps the person is going through a breakup of their own, a death, or a job change. The stuffed emotions that were never attended to come back to blow the current situation entirely out of proportion. One important question for persons to learn to ask themselves when they have a very volatile reaction to something that happens currently is, when might I have experienced like this previously that may be coloring this current reaction.

So while we need healthy anxiety, how do we know when we are suffering with excessive or unnecessary anxiety? Simple. When our anxiety begins to impede our enjoyable and productive lives and when we begin to develop physical symptoms, such as, headaches, stomach problems, chest pain, panic attacks, worry, phobias, or compulsions, such as, smoking, excessive drinking, eating or drug use, in an attempt to cope with life’s stress. When we begin to exhibit physical symptoms, most people begin to develop theories about what caused those symptoms and most of those theories are inaccurate and only lead us to tangents and often to the conclusion, “I can’t.” When our body exhibits physical symptoms, it’s just our body’s way of tapping us on the shoulder and trying to convey to us “listen, I’m trying to tell you something.” Unfortunately, people who suffer with excessive anxiety often have never learned to listen properly to themselves. They are people who typically are sensitive, emotional, creative, and capable people as well as perfectionists, but temporarily they use this otherwise good personality correctly against themselves as they use their creative intelligence to creatively scare the heck out of themselves.

Q What is the difference between guilt and shame?

We need healthy guilt in our lives. Healthy guilt affirms our values and the possibility for repair exists when a relationship is injured as one apologizes and growth is promoted. Healthy guilt is about our behavior. When we go against our morals and our ethics, we need to feel guilty to encourage us to apologize to get back on the straight and narrow, healing that relationship. When we are shamed by being over-protected, criticized or compared, abandoned, neglected or abused in life, we begin to feel broken or inadequate or “less than.”

Guilt is about making a mistake. Shame is about feeling like we are a mistake. We can apologize for making a mistake and can feel reconnected with people once again, but how can you apologize for your personhood. Shame is main ingredient in eroding our self-confidence, leading us to feel “I can’t.”

Q What types of therapies are effective in coping effectively with anxiety and reducing shame?

I find that a combination of meeting with people personally and having them participate in a psycho educational program about the common denominators for persons with all sorts of different anxiety to be most helpful. Developing a close one-to-one rapport with a therapist, while participating in a psychology program, to explore the things in their life that have shaped them led to some of their assumptions and belief systems is also helpful. Hearing the lectures in a psycho educational program helps them to see the “big pictures,” to hear strategies in living life more effectively, and to help them to see that they are not as unique as they thought they were as they listen to other people in a program. Tailoring the general information to their specific needs in personal sessions makes the treatment more efficient and effective.

Medications can also be very helpful in helping people to function on a day-to-day basis and, in some cases, with the help of the psycho educational lecture and personalized individual care; they can reduce their need for medication or perhaps learn to function confidentially without the need for medications.


Some of the resources that are available for people seeking help for anxiety and  shame issues are the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, the OCD Foundation, many books and treatment centers throughout the country, can all provide helpful information and, hence, to allow people to live their lives more effectively with less unnecessary anxiety.

Mr. Briggs is the author of:

 Product Details  Transforming Anxiety, Transcending Shame (1999)

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