the sirens

The Sirens: How Anxiety Tempts Us to Shipwreck

Originally published on December 28, 2021

What Are The Sirens?

Spoiler alert: I didn’t study mythology in college. Heck, I actually know relatively little about it. However, as the decades have passed and I’ve read additional tales from long ago, I’ve found more and more parallels between some of the challenges various mythological protagonists faced during their voyages and those we encounter on our mental health journeys.

In previous posts, we’ve talked about legends such as Sisyphus and Medusa. And, in my latest book, “Get Out of Your Head Vol. 2: Navigating the Abyss of Depression,” I discuss how the mythic sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, represent two of our greatest foes in the mental health realm: anxiety and depression.

So, to keep the theme going, in this post, I want to talk about the sirens. They’re another intriguing chapter in Greek lore. And, just like Scylla and her whirling counterpart, these new adversaries just happen to be tied to our maritime adventures as well.

To describe them succinctly, the sirens were dangerous creatures with beautiful voices who sang out to ocean-bound sailors while waiting on the coast of a rocky and treacherous island. One of the most common words associated with the sirens is “temptation;” sailors would hear their alluring voices and struggle mightily to resist drifting over to them.

The problem with approaching that rocky island, however, was that every ship that sailed too close to it soon found itself annihilated — no vessel stood a chance against the isle’s harsh landscape.

Thus, sailors often found themselves painfully torn. They knew they shouldn’t cruise toward the sirens’ home, but they also desperately craved to hear more of those creatures’ beautiful music. For those that couldn’t resist the temptation, doom and devastation awaited.

Comparing the Sirens to Mental Health

Alright, so I think that gives us a good understanding of our new opponents, but, just like my previous, mythology-inspired posts, one question remains: What does this new tale have anything to do with mental health?

In my mind, the sirens compare well to a phenomenon we often experience when we’re anxious. That is, ahead of fear-inducing events and possibilities, our worries tend to penetrate the walls of our minds and beg for our attention.

Now, if we knew, with total conviction, that handing our focus over to such fears would cause us to figuratively shipwreck, it’s likely we’d never think about them at all. But that’s obviously not the case here, which is why the temptation exists in the first place.

Having been through this frustrating and unnerving process many times before (as I’m sure you have, too), I know pretty darn well that rehashing my worries and ruminating on what I don’t want to happen in the near future is a recipe for disaster. Yet I often still do it anyway. Why is that?

It’s because our brains were designed to identify and neutralize threats as quickly and decisively as possible. With one more loop through our worry-filled thinking, they deduce, we’ll “get to the bottom” of whatever it is that’s scaring us or outwit or counteract it altogether. There’s just one problem, though: like the sirens, our alluring fears have a long history of causing “sailors” to shipwreck. And that’s a pattern we’re unlikely to break any time soon.

Avoiding the Sirens, Staving Off Shipwreck

So, we now know what our metaphorical sirens represent, but just how do they manifest in our minds, and how can we avoid them to avert catastrophe? Great questions. I’ll answer the first one now with the help of an example, then slowly get to the second one as we close out this post.

Let’s say you have to give an essential sales pitch at work tomorrow — one that will determine whether or not you’ll get the year-end bonus for which you’ve been yearning.

If we were to apply our mythological analogy to this situation, the sirens would look like all the worries and doubts that try to force their way into your mind ahead of your big presentation. They’re the fears of totally ruining the pitch, saying something utterly foolish, or having a panic attack in the middle of it. Like all our fears, the thought of these things grips us and tempts our fight-or-flight mechanisms to activate.

And what happens when they do? Our bodies go on high alert to help us neutralize the threat in front of us as quickly as possible.

There’s a problem with that process, as it pertains to this situation, though: our perceived “threat” isn’t an in-the-moment, life-or-death-bringing menace but the thought of something that could potentially happen tomorrow. And that leads to all sorts of undesirable issues for us (namely, anxiety and its accompanying symptoms) because our nervous systems aren’t nearly as good at handling off-in-the-distance dangers as they are present ones.

Yet, still, when faced with one of these more distant threats, we have two choices: we can focus on our fears until our big moment arrives — keeping ourselves in a revved-up state — or we can actively distract ourselves from such worries until said moment comes.

If we do the former, we choose the path of temptation — we listen to the call of the sirens and sail right into the rocky shore, where distress, failure, and pain await us. But if we pick the latter, we operate much like that of Odysseus, the clever Greek hero who tied himself to his ship’s mast so he wouldn’t be able to act on his siren-driven desires.

In choosing this second option, we give our bodies a chance to forget what’s threatening us and power down our fight-or-flight capacities. And, most importantly, we mitigate the unwanted sensations associated with our fear and increase our odds of escaping aquatic devastation.

Of course, just as was the case for Odysseus, choosing this path isn’t always easy. But if we want to avoid the most harrowing of our anxiety-related symptoms, it’s the route we must sail. I hope you’ll do the same the next time you hear anxiety’s siren song.

Thanks for Reading. Here Are Some Other Posts You Might Enjoy:

Navigating the Abyss: Introducing Get Out of Your Head Volume 2

Occlumency: How to Manage Anxiety Like a Wizard

**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2021

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