There are times in our lives when we are threatened and attacked. There are times when we feel threatened and attacked but it is actually not so*. How can such a misperception happen and what can we do about it?
You may know the feeling when you are threatened and attacked – verbally, physically, emotionally, intellectually or even spiritually. The other person may be known to you, or not. They may do it intentionally, or not. Indeed, you and I may have done it to others.
Whatever the story, when it happens, it can be frightening and annoying.
We can respond to threats and attacks in many ways, depending on our character and how we may feel at the time.
We want to defend ourselves, passively or actively – flight or fight. We may withdraw or go on the attack.
Sometimes, we opt for the appropriate approach and sometimes we don’t.
We may have a tendency to opt for one or the other, irrespective of whether it is helpful or not. In that case, it might be helpful to explore why that may be, and what we may need to do, to become a bit more flexible in our responses.
Ultimately, we crave safety and want the threat and attack to stop.
Feeling under siege, developing a siege or bunker mentality, on the other hand, can be different.
The term describes a specific mentality of victimization and defensiveness. It is based on the experience of actual military defenses, and can also occur in societies and groups with ideological isolation. But it can also happen to individuals, you and I.
What I am focusing on here, is when we may feel constantly under attack, especially when the attack is perceived and not real.
How can this happen and what can we do about it?
When it happens, and you may have experienced it, the attack feels ‘real’ and it can be very difficult to separate out reality from imagination. That is because the fear can be so overwhelming. We feel unsafe.
The reasons for this can vary. This can be a temporary state of mind or long-lasting and even chronic.
Sometimes, we are out of balance, mentally and emotionally exhausted and our judgment impaired.
We may have had to deal with several difficulties, including actual attacks and threats, difficult situations and people.
You will know the plea inside our heads: “When will it stop? I cannot take any more of this!”
The accumulative sum of such experiences can make us become extra alert and sensitive. That makes sense and comes from the need to protect ourselves.
But we may become hyper-alert all of the time, looking at everything and anything first and foremost as a threat.
Such a mental state can lead to physical symptoms of stress such as muscle tightness, dizziness, restlessness, sleep disruption to which we may respond with an increase of self-medication.
Socially we may become more irritable, argumentative, aggressive or withdrawn.
Emotionally this can lead to heightened anxiety, depression, anger and loneliness.
In a way, it all makes sense. Our thoughts, behavior and feelings are an understandable outcome of heightened vigilance, because of the perceived threats and victimization we are experiencing.
The longer we stay in that place, the more intense and convincing the thoughts and feelings become. The harder it gets to separate reality from perceived fear.
But it is not impossible to regain the all important sense of proportion, for our sense of judgment to recover and for the state of siege to end.
It all goes back to self-trust, feeling control and connecting or reconnecting with a more resilient sense of self: the belief and trust that we have equal value.
That does not mean, threats and attacks by others will stop. Sadly, injustices, difficult, unpleasant and infuriating experiences may continue to happen to us throughout our life time. But we will be able to separate the real from the unreal.
How do you know whether you are stuck in a siege mentality – temporarily or longer-term?
If you are in a constant state of alert and have a tendency to approach people and situations with mistrust and fear.
Ask yourself: What has been happening in your life for you to end have ended up in this place? How have you dealt (or not) with what has happened?
What can you do about it?
Notice it – calmly.
Observe yourself – how you think, how you feel and how you respond.
Try to gradually separate out what has actually happened from what you feel and think about it.
See whether what you feel and think is proportionate to what has actually happened.
How much of it is fear of what might be going on versus what is actually going on?
Ask yourself: Is there another way of looking at this? Is there another possibility?
Might what is happening actually have very little to do with you? Not everything revolves around us and peoples’ actions may have to do with their own difficulties and shortcomings rather than with how they may feel about us.
Can you start to moderate (at least a bit) your feeling of fear (and anger)?
Think – what are your response options?
In addition to this process of evaluation of what is actually going on (the reality check), it is important you try and cut down on stress and slow down your life. This is important for your mind and body to calm down, instead of being constantly overloaded with stimuli.
We need to come to rest mentally and emotionally to be able to start developing some kind of sense of proportion and to re-connect with reality.
However, you might conclude that the volume of threats and attacks is real and that your hyper vigilance is, therefore, justified and necessary. And, alas, you may be right.
We can live and work in places, be in relationships or have a circle of friends, which quite frankly may not be good for us. In that case, we may need to think about what it takes to stay and keep safe, or what it may take to make changes and leave.
In that case, the energy we burn on hyper vigilance may be better spent on making changes that are better for the life we lead. That may be daunting, difficult and frightening.
Sometimes, living in a stage of siege may feel easier than making changes. @KarinSieger (Click to Tweet!)
*In this article I do not discuss the kind of paranoia, which is a symptom of a personality disorder. In that cas, appropriate medical, therapeutic or psychiatric help may be needed.
Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer based in London, UK. Central to her work is the belief that we all have an intuitive wisdom for self development and emotional healing. Making and living in peace with our self is core to living well and coping with personal crises. Karin is particularly interested in anxiety, loss, transitions and the emotional impact of chronic or life-shortening illnesses like cancer, for which she has been treated herself. Karin posts regularly on her website KarinSieger.com. You can sign up for her Newsletter, follow her on Twitter.
Image courtesy of Greek Food Ta Mystika.