Recently I’ve become reacquainted with the brilliance of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As you can see below, it’s a psychological theory in the form of a pyramid chart which lays out the basic order in which our needs must be met in order to avoid getting all screwed up.
First and foremost, the pyramid says that our physiological needs must be met. Most of us struggling with anxiety would probably say that we have our physiological needs met. Most of us have a warm place to sleep, food in our bellies, clothing and air to breath, but do we have sleep? Do we have homeostasis? If you are an anxious human like I am, then it’s likely that both sleep and homeostasis (balance) are compromised. If you are an anxious person who drinks alcohol or uses drugs, then it is even more likely that many of these basic physiological needs are out of whack. You know what I mean.
Now let’s move up the pyramid to safety. This includes things like safety of body, health and of family. It’s important not to skim over this just because you have good health, a job and have a family. Feeling safe in the world is something that a lot of us don’t have regardless of what our situation “looks like” to the outside world. The truth is, we learn to feel safe and to trust the world as a small child. If our physical and emotional needs are met consistently from the time we are babies and throughout early childhood, we form solid attachments and it becomes hard wired into our little brains that we are worthy of love and that we are safe. That becomes our foundation and we approach the world with a sense security. Unfortunately, if that doesn’t happen, it becomes hard wired into our brain that we aren’t safe and we struggle with deep rooted feelings of fear, worthlessness, longing and sadness (vague and/or acute). Did you learn that the world is a safe place as a child? If not, then it’s likely that you’re compensating in some way (drinking, drugging, staying in a crappy relationship, over eating, etc). These compensatory behaviours create a vicious cycle where we continue to compromise our physiological needs as a means of trying to satisfy our need for safety. We are trying to feel good and we are looking outside of ourselves to do it. What makes it even more complicated is that if you look the way you are supposed to look on the outside and you have all of the things you are supposed to have, then people don’t understand why you are struggling. You may not even know why you are struggling.
At this point, you may be wondering where the Tetris analogy comes in. Basically what I’ve said so far is that a ton of us never quite get the bottom two rungs of the pyramid down pat, which means that we have a shaky foundation, unresolved issues and bad habits sprung for other bad habits. Think of these things as the bottom lines in your Tetris game that have piled up on top of one another because you can’t make the pieces fit. Since life goes on and you have to keep playing, you move on and try to fulfill your need for love and belonging as well as your need for esteem and accomplishment. So, whether we're ready or not, we get into relationships, pursue a career and maybe even create some new little anxious humans. We find ourselves trying to make new pieces fit on top of the ones already piling up with less time and resources at our disposal. We keep adding responsibility upon responsibility and at some point the game and life just starts to feel frantic. This is that point in the game where the music speeds up and us anxious folks begin to manically rotate the pieces in our life around trying to make them all fit under the weight of an intensifying sense of dread. Those with a tendency toward depression just watch the pieces pile up until they see the words “game over” flashing. Either way, the situation is a result of not being able to satisfy our physiological and safety needs before moving on to the others.
Fixing these types of issues requires focused attention and time. Alcohol’s unmatched ability to ease anxiety makes it next to impossible for anxious humans to resist which is precisely why so many of us struggle with it. When people go to rehab for substance abuse issues, they are essentially plucked out of their lives and placed in an environment designed to shelter them from the demands of day to day life, sometimes for months at a time. Substance abuse is often a way of coping with underlying issues. It is those underlying issues that are addressed rigorously in treatment centres that recognize that the work simply can’t be done without adequate attention and time. Regardless, whether your mental health issues have manifested in alcoholism or something else, once you recognize that your foundation is shaky, the first logical step to take is to stop adding bricks. That means that you need to stop adding responsibilities and pressures and reduce the ones that you do have. You need to slow down and some people need to completely stop, usually right at the time when it feels like doing that would be impossible. In a way, it’s like pressing pause during your Tetris game when the blocks are just about to reach the top. It’s exactly what needs to happen. While the game is paused, you take the time to chip away at the first few levels and make some space for healthy building. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and don't be afraid to press pause.