How to Manage Fear & Anxiety After Leaving a High-Control Group

When we dare consider leaving a high-control group in order to reclaim our life, our fear quotient can shoot off the charts. We have probably been warned about what will happen if we try to leave. We know the repercussions usually meted out by the group. We can anticipate what is in store for us. We will then, perhaps, feel anxious or crippled with fear.


To leave, we are told, will mean a literal or symbolic death – a cutting off from the group, from salvation, from heavenly rewards and perhaps from god himself. Some of our fears may be exaggerated due to phobias instilled in us during any thought-reform practiced by the group. However, most of our fears are well-founded. We are not paranoid or crazy. We have seen what happened to others who dared to take back their mind and their life. We understand the challenges we will face in order to rebuild an authentic, self-directed life.

Once out, we soon realize that a lot of the instilled, pervasive fears have a life of their own. Even if we have done all we can to ensure our safety, we may still feel we could be blindsided by the coercive group’s punishments. Perhaps we fear that we will be permanently cut off from god’s love and protection. These and other concerns seem to be deeply embedded in our cells and we would do well to … learn how to manage them while we wait for the healer known as “time” to help them dissipate.

Sometimes anxieties arise in the form of obsessive thoughts that seem to have a life of their own. They arrive unprompted, unwelcome and even contextually irrelevant. But off they spin making us constrict, withdraw, tense, and perhaps move into a fight, flight or freeze response.

Here are ten simple, easy things you can do to help manage fear or anxiety:


Stop.  Sit.  Ground.  Breathe.  Rest.  Hydrate.  Inquire.  Remember.  Move.  Imagine.[1]

  1. STOP: When you notice fear thoughts are out of control, stop what you are doing and become the observer of what is taking place in your mind. Do not judge or condemn what you observe – just stop whatever you are doing and pay attention without becoming engaged with the thoughts. Stop any active involvement with the thoughts and just observe them. (Note: Sometimes fear arises for a good reason. If, while observing, you assess that you are in actual danger – take the required steps to protect yourself.)
  2. SIT: If you are not in any actual danger, sit down and bring your attention to what is happening around you in the moment. Sit with present moment awareness. Yes, there are fear thoughts spinning around in your mind AND the sun is shining in the window, and the cat is purring at your feet. Just sit. Simply be present to and connect with life around you while you sit.
  3. GROUND: As you sit, make sure your legs are uncrossed and both feet are planted flat on the ground – better yet, if you are outside – bare and flat on the earth.
  4. BREATHE: As you sit, bring your observing awareness to your breath. At first, just observe your breathing without trying to change it. Then after a few moments, as best you can, take a few slow, deep, cleansing breathes. Check to see if your breathing is stuck mid-chest or if you are able to do deep diaphragmatic breathing. (Seeing your belly move in and out, instead of your upper chest would indicate you are doing diaphragmatic breathing.) Begin to simply concentrate on the exhalation – focus on a long, slow release of air with each breath.
  5. REST: Each of the above steps should have helped you enter a calmer headspace, which in turn should help your muscles begin to relax. Rest now, for a while, in the rhythm of your breath. Remain identified with your non-judgmental, observing awareness. For this moment – there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to be. If you observe that there are still fear thoughts in the mind, just watch them without attaching to them. Imagine any anxiety or stressful thoughts leaving your body with each exhalation and return to resting in the rhythm of your breath.
  6. HYDRATE: After stopping, sitting, grounding, calming and resting in your breath, if you can, drink some water. Hydrate your cells. Being still, grounded, oxygenated and hydrated will support the body/mind to release itself from the grip of the anxious fear thinking.
  7. INQUIRE: Now that you have completed the previous six steps, take a moment to ask yourself a few questions. Hone in on the dominant fear thought that you’ve observed and ask yourself: Is it true? Is it really true? If you believe the thought is true, follow up with the question: How do I feel inside when I believe that fearful thought? Usually the answer is something like, vulnerable, powerless, little, alone, unworthy or unloved. Then ask yourself if you are willing to release the thought and move back to feeling, as best you can, okay, centered, capable and worthy of love. Self-inquiry can help diminish the import and impact of the thought. (You can learn more about self-inquiry by visiting the website called The Work by Byron Katie.) Familiarize yourself with the process of self-inquiry so that it becomes easy for you to use in the midst of stressful situations.
  8. REMEMBER: Take a moment now to remember who you really are. Remember all you have accomplished. Remember how courageous you have been – in spite of very justifiable fears. Remember how many of the things you feared in the past never came to pass. Often when we are experiencing fearful thoughts, if we stop and ask ourselves: How old do I feel inside right now? – we will find that we feel quite young. Fear-filled thinking makes us feel anxious and we can often regress into feeling quite childlike – which makes the fears seem even more intimidating. Take time to remember who you really are now. Remember that you are an adult with all of the skills and options of an adult. Remember all of the resources that you, as an adult, can access. Remember that you are no longer a vulnerable, helpless, controlled child. Remember who you are now and settle into that knowing.
  9. MOVE: Once you have completed the above eight simple steps – if circumstances allow, move your body. Go for a walk or do some light exercise. By walking you are oxygenating your cells, producing feel-good endorphins, and balancing your brain hemispheres with the bilateral movements of your legs and arms. Moving (especially bi-lateral movements of your limbs) will help you think more clearly and stop any tendency for negative thoughts to loop around repetitively in your mind. If you cannot walk outside, try marching in place touching your right knee with your left hand and your left knee with your right hand. (This exercise is called the Cross Crawl and is an effective way to balance the two hemispheres of your brain and recalibrate your thinking.)
  10. IMAGINE: If you have time, find a guided visualization (online) to help you create an imaginary, inner safe place for yourself. Once you have already created a safe place, in moments of distress, anxiety or fear – after doing the above nine steps – you can go immediately to the safe space in your mind and find rest, respite and renewal.


(Excerpt from Chapter 13, The Challenge to Heal, 2016, Bonnie Zieman)

[1]  These ten steps are totally within your control. They cost nothing. You do not need anyone else to help you employ them. You don’t have to go anywhere special to use them. All you have to do is recall and use them to manage and minimize fear-based thinking.

Between Depression & Anxiety – Choose Anxiety

If you have to choose between depression and anxiety – choose anxiety!  Here’s why:

One of my favorite books in my library is by Jungian analyst, James Hollis and entitled, “Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places”. In it the author addresses how to cope with the dismal feelings of guilt, grief, loss, betrayal, doubt, loneliness, depression, despair, obsessions, addictions, anger, fear, angst, and anxiety.


In the chapter where Hollis addresses the “swampland of depression” he says: “The task implicit in this particular swampland is to become conscious enough to discern the difference between what happened to us in the past and who we are in the present. No one can move forward, psychologically, who cannot say, “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” Such a person can come to recognize that the early deficit was not inherent in the child, but the result of circumstances beyond that child’s control. One can then begin to tap the energy for life that was previously walled off.

For those of us who have been deceived, duped, exploited, repressed in the past and then exiled from our loved ones when we choose to exit such controls, it is easy to feel depressed – depressed when we think of the years we have lost, the family we have lost, the skills we were discouraged from exploring, the potential we sacrificed. As we grieve our losses, we may understandably feel depressed for a time. Who would not feel depressed as they contemplate the task ahead – to begin from scratch to rebuild a thwarted life?

As we contemplate rebuilding a life after being discouraged from educating ourselves, discouraged from developing normal competencies (that were not useful to the goals of the high-control group), discouraged from developing a normal comfort level in the world – we may experience anxiety.

It is often found that, in an attempt to avoid the discomfort of the anxiety that accompanies ventures into the unknown, people can slip back into a state of depression. It seems that the human psyche sometimes prefers depression and the safety its paralysis provides, over the discomforting feelings of anxiety produced by taking on new tasks.

We need to understand that although we may intensely dislike the feeling of anxiety it, at the very least, signals that we are entertaining doing things that are new to us, doing things that take us out of our old comfort zone, undertaking tasks that require us to take risks and moving forward with rebuilding our life.

Depression on the other hand, while perhaps serving the purpose of squashing the anxiety of movement into the unknown – can dull us, paralyze us, and demoralize us. Depression can sometimes be an unconscious choice to feel “safe” in a shell of sorrow, rather than to experience the anxiety of risk-taking and growth.

James Hollis explains: “Thus we are forced into a difficult choice – anxiety or depression. If we move forward, as our soul insists, we may be flooded by anxiety. If we do not move forward, we will suffer the depression, the pressing down of the soul’s purpose. In such a difficult choice one must choose anxiety, for anxiety at least is a path of potential growth; depression is a stagnation and defeat of life.

It is important for those of us suddenly finding ourselves without supports and woefully unprepared to function in a world we were led to believe was ‘evil’ and about to be destroyed, to realize that anxiety is to be expected when we lose our comfort zone, when we tackle something new. In fact, experiencing anxiety is a signal that you are working at learning new skills, entering new spheres of operation, and testing your determination to build a new life.

Soren Kierkegaard says, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” If you want to explore and enjoy your newfound freedom you will, as a consequence, experience some anxiety.

Experiencing anxiety is NOT always a signal that you are in danger and should stop. Anxiety is NOT always your enemy. You WILL experience anxiety as you work to reclaim and rebuild your life. It must be expected, managed and even embraced.

As James Hollis says, we are confronted by a choice to move forward while experiencing some anxiety or to fall back into paralysis and depression. Depression, by stalling forward movement, may temporarily make anxiety abate and may even make you feel “safe” and less vulnerable – but at what cost?

Depression, when it strikes, does hold meaning, and there may be much we can learn from its presence. If, however, you think you may have unconsciously chosen to feel depressed rather than to experience the feeling of anxiety that comes with entering new territory, consider making a conscious choice to involve yourself in the project of rebuilding your life with its attendant anxiety. Choose the challenge. Allow the anxiety. Manage the anxiety. Take the required steps toward meeting your previously repressed potential.

Thirty years ago when I left a manipulative, repressive group, I felt depressed. During that period of depression I made little progress in moving forward and rebuilding my life. Blinded by the many losses and the dark hole of depression, I saw no way forward.



However, the depression did offer a time-out to grieve my losses and as I slowed down during that dismal state and thought about my life, I was able to develop an appreciation for what remained to me, for nature’s always reliable presence, and for the unconditional love always demonstrated by my husband and children. As the depression helped me make space for grieving, I eventually came to the realization that life now required me to embrace this new reality outside of the high-control group and to step up to envision a future different from the one I had expected.

However, as I contemplated moving forward with my life – I became anxious. At first I took the anxiety as an indicator that I was moving too fast or contemplating too much. Fortunately, something in me was able to challenge the accuracy of that assumption.

I began to re-envision and rebuild my life with small, manageable steps in areas that would cause me the least amount of anxiety. I began with the path of least resistance and sought out books that would encourage and support me – and began a course of private uplifting and educational reading/study at home.

With the new knowledge from my reading, and as my courage grew I decided to step out of my comfort zone and study more formally at university. It took a few months to push myself to take the risks required. I had to be willing to endure the anxious feelings these new behaviors and surroundings would produce. It would have been so much easier to continue to isolate and mourn my losses, but life was asking me to stretch and grow.

I was fortunate to have the time and resources to make the choice to go to university. However, it made me anxious to even think of all the pre-requisites I would have to fulfil to be admitted to any institute of higher learning. I had grown up in a cult that discouraged formal higher education. There was a lot of catching-up to do. Once admitted into the halls of higher learning, the anxiety did not abate. For a while, each new step brought more anxiety with it. I felt like an alien treading on unknown ground on a distant planet. I felt unprepared and out of sync. But, I discovered, the only way to reduce my unpreparedness was to persist learning new things and trying out new behaviors. That persistence also reduced my anxiety.

I had to take the risks and bear the anxiety movement forward produced, in order to build competencies that would allow me to fully participate in and enjoy this hard-won experience of freedom. Of course, I did not realize then that I was actually choosing anxiety over depression. I only discovered that when I read the Hollis book “Swamplands of the Soul” and made the connection.

It is my hope that with this article I have alerted you to this choice that may also present itself to you. I want to encourage you to not fear your own (very normal) anxiety as you contemplate reclaiming and rebuilding your life. Instead, recognize the anxiety when stepping into the unknown as a signal that you are trying new things that will help you recover your place in the world. The anxiety will diminish with time and persistence.

Your new, life-rebuilding projects may be very different from mine, but the inner experience will be similar. Humans are designed to experience anxiety when entering new situations so that they will stay alert, maintain focus and keep themselves safe. Eventually, as we embrace more and more new activities the anxiety will lessen, but anxiety will still be there as a signal when you are entering ‘new territory’ and need to keep your wits about you and/or seek support.

One caveat: As you work to create a new life, be alert to old patterns of excessively high standards and overly-high expectations. They can exacerbate anxiety and, if the high-expectations are not attained, throw you back into depression.

If you are newly out of a high-control group and about to rebuild your life, use the Hollis sentence quoted above to remind yourself of the choice in front of you: “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.”  If we only dwell on what happened to us and what we lost by being a member of a controlling, repressive group we will probably remain depressed. If instead, we start to work toward what we can now become, with what is now available to us, in spite of the accompanying anxiety, we will be rewarded with progress into a new, rewarding life.



(This piece was originally written for and posted on the Open Mind Foundations’ blog.)

You Just Left a High-Control Group – What Now?

If you are thinking about leaving a high-control group, or have just left one, you have embarked on an amazing journey toward freedom, authenticity and autonomy. Although you have left and closed the door behind you, the road ahead may not yet be clear. Perhaps that is why you searched for help on the internet, hoping to find help to point to the immediate steps ahead.

First of all, let’s state the obvious: Leaving a controlling movement, group or situation is not easy. You may not even be sure yet that you have made the right decision. Perhaps you are full of doubts, feeling confused, feeling afraid and even experiencing perhaps, some self-recriminations.

You may feel relieved to know that those are feelings experienced by all of us who have left an all-consuming organization and a manipulated lifestyle. It is normal to feel disoriented and unsure after leaving something you felt strongly about, friends you lived and/or worked with, and never-disputed leaders who claimed to be able to protect and guide you through the vicissitudes of life.

Realize it or not, being a member of a controlling, high-demand, identity-crushing group can qualify as psychological, emotional, spiritual, and occasionally physical abuse. Whether you want to consider yourself traumatically wounded, or not, sooner or later you will have to admit that you have been wounded or traumatized by some of the typical high-demand group treatment such as: deceit, identity-obliteration, manipulation, exploitation, coercion, isolation, threats, false promises, undue controls on your access to information, freedom of movement, ability to question, etc. etc.

You may now feel overwhelmed by grief realizing how you were misled, how much of your life has been stolen from you, and how you may now have to begin from scratch to reclaim your authentic identity, build a new life and create a new social network.

So, one of the main things on your mind must be: “I know I have a long road ahead, but what can I do to help myself right now?”

Psychiatrist, Judith Lewis Herman wrote the classic book entitled “Trauma and Recovery”. Herman says there are three stages of healing after traumatic experiences and identifies them as: Safety, Remembrance & Mourning, and Reconnection.

Safety   :::   Remembrance & Mourning   :::   Reconnection

Herman puts these three stages in the above order, however, as with most things, the stages will not always be orderly and neat. One stage may run into and be overlapped by the next. That is to be expected. Allow your process to unfold as it will – just make sure you attend to each of the suggested stages.

While you are right, you do have a long road of recovery to travel, it begins with ensuring your own physical and psychological safety. Now – just out of the controlling group – you must not skip over Herman’s first stage of attending to safety by wanting to rush immediately into healing your wounds and rebuilding your life. It’s normal to want to speed ahead in that way, however, you must first attend to your physical and psychological safety. They lay the foundation for the recovery work ahead.


Some ways to attend to physical safety after exiting a high-control system:

  • First you must attend to your literal safety. If you are concerned that the group you left may stalk, harass, retaliate and/or harm you, you must find ways to protect yourself. That might include moving away, laying low for a while, not letting anyone in the coercive group know where they can find you, changing your telephone number, assuming another identity, keeping all your identity information and co-ordinates carefully guarded, putting extra locks on your doors, even seeking police protection, or if you are in a foreign country seeking asylum at your country’s consulate.
  • If you have no money and/or no one to turn to, you may have to turn to social services in the area for temporary respite. Hopefully, shelters will direct you to resources that can help you find food and shelter and then a way to earn money and help to find a place to live.
  • To ensure your immediate safety and well-being you may have to live in places you would never normally consider, take employment below your skill set, and/or live a lifestyle below your normal standards. For now, comfort, self-esteem and normalcy might have to take a back seat to safety. Remember, it’s just temporary. Things will stabilize – it just takes time.
  • Once you have ensured that you are not in danger or at physical risk, you can begin to take more personal, health-related measures to ensure your internal sense of physical safety. If you are not functionning at a healthy level, you will not feel ‘safe’. To function optimally during the transition from leaving a high-control group, you have to make sure that you are getting adequate rest, adequate nutrition, adequate hydration, adequate exercise and adequate fresh air and sunshine. These things are so basic that we can have a tendency to take them for-granted and even dismiss them, wanting to move immediately onto the process of healing from our wounds. However, it is by taking good physical care of yourself that you support yourself and set the foundation for being able to do the work of Herman’s second stage of Remembrance and Mourning. How can you do the challenging work of remembering and mourning all the losses and indignities of being deceived, conned and controlled if you have not had adequate rest, nourishment, hydration and strength?
  • Enjoying physical well-being, physical health and physical strength is the foundation for all the other recovery work you will undertake.


Some ways to attend to psychological safety after exiting a high-control system:

  • It is by taking steps to feel safe psychologically that you minimize your levels of stress and the toll such stress can take on your body/mind. If you have already attended to taking care of your physical safety and physiological needs, then you have already minimized one main source of psychological stress.
  • To continue dealing with people who are still members of the group may be a big sources of psychological stress. If you have family still in the group, you may feel obliged to continue communication with them. If you have no family in the group, consider cutting off all communication with members of the group. They may guilt, shame or pressure you. They may issue warnings of all the terrible things that will befall you for leaving the group. The loaded, triggering, old group terminology may make you feel diminished or threatened – creating a lack of psychological safety. Minimizing, as you can, any contact with the controlling group members will help you feel more psychologically safe.
  • One of the main ways we create a lack of psychological safety is with our own thinking. Are you making mental lists of all the terrible things that might happen to you as a result of leaving the group? Are you ruminating on what you should have done, or could have done? Are you dramatizing the possible dangers of having left the organization? Are you only able to imagine a future for yourself in the most negative and discouraging terms? If so – it must not feel very safe to be in your head! You have to learn how to manage your thinking. You must take control of your own thoughts, so as not to let your thinking run riot with all kinds of terrible imaginary scenarios. Your body/mind cannot tell the difference between a real experience and a well-imagined one. What are more ‘well-imagined’ than our worry thoughts? Interrupt, challenge or stop such thinking and it will begin to feel much more safe inside your head! You will experience less anxiety.
  • One way to not get caught in a lot of psychological stress (which adds to a feeling of a lack of safety) of your own making is to make a concerted effort to live in present moment awareness.
  • Do some Google searches to learn more about present moment awareness and the amazing technique called Mindfulness.
  • Begin to take basic measures and small beginning steps to find your own living space, get any identity papers you need, set up any training or permits you need to be able to work, plan a realistic budget and be frugal so that money is not a major stress-causing factor in your life. If perchance you have a source of income which means food, clothing and housing are not a source of stress for you, then bring your attention to finding a therapist to talk to during the next phase of your recovery. Small steps that begin to put the pieces of your life back together will help you feel some relief from all the pressure.
  • Putting basic structures that support life in place will help you feel safe enough to be able to move on to the next phase of your recovery – remembrance and mourning.



  • If you can afford it, try to find a good therapist who understands what it is like living subjected to manipulation and control. The therapist will accompa
    ny you as you review, remember and mourn your losses due to control, coercion, abuse and
  • If you cannot afford to work with a therapist right now, then a good way to help yourself remember and grieve is to write about the coercive experiences in a journal.
  • Set aside time to write, and time to feel and grieve as you write. This kind of work can be taxing, which underscores the above encouragement to make sure you are taking care of your physical well-being so that you have the strength to do this emotional work.
  • If you can set things up this way, try to schedule time to take a brisk walk in the fresh air and sunshine after a session of writing, remembering and feeling. The walking has many benefits – one of which is that the bilateral strides help to rebalance the brain hemispheres and release some feel-good endorphins. The last thing you want to do after a session of writing and intense feeling is to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Choose walking over self-medicating!
  • Of course, there is much more involved in this stage of remembrance and mourning than documenting your experience and feelings in a journal. You can find a lot of good suggestions about how to manage this stage of your recovery from manipulation and exploitation in the about-to-be-published book, “The Challenge to Heal – A Recovery Guide”


3rd stage:  RECONNECTION

  • Having probably been required to limit your social circle and interactions to members of the same high-control group, and perhaps now being shunned by those friends still in the group, you can expect to find yourself alone and even lonely.
  • It is very difficult for humans to heal in isolation. We all have a basic need for human connection. It may feel daunting to think about re-entering the world of social interactions, especially if you were made to feel that the outside world was bad, dangerous or immoral.
  • Since people are not aware of your background or current needs, they will not be lining up at your door asking to become your friend. The work of reconnection is really up to you. You must look for ways to reach out, initiate a conversation with a stranger or invite a colleague out for a cup of coffee.
  • Be patient with yourself. Not every effort to connect will be successful. Just don’t allow yourself to become discouraged. If you are turned down, rebuffed, unsuccessful – just keep on trying. There are all kinds of wonderful people out there who are looking for connections with other human beings too.
  • Connections with others are wonderful ways to commiserate, laugh, enjoy pleasurable activities, and get support.
  • Once you do find someone whose company you enjoy, be judicious about how much you share or disclose at one time. You do not want to overwhelm new friends with all the details of your difficult past. Disclose – but disclose appropriately and with some appropriate restraint.
  • Friendships are solidified when both people feel that the other is interested in them. Ask questions of your new friend. Be curious about their views and their Listen. Don’t use their answers as vehicles to move into talking about yourself. When someone feels heard and feels appreciated they will feel more connected to you and then be desirous of further get-togethers with you.
  • As you rebuild your life outside of the high-control group, think about making connections along the way. Make connections with colleagues, fellow students, neighbors, etc. Be the first to say a warm hello. Many people are just as shy as you might feel and will be relieved and happy that someone else makes the first friendly gesture.
  • Life will start to feel more worthwhile as you reconnect and engage with it. As you create safety, grieve your wounds and losses, and develop new connections you will begin to feel more energized, upbeat and hopeful. You will have things to look forward to. You will see that there is life outside of the group and beyond the memories of what you were required to do by the group, or what the group did to you. You will feel less defined by your experiences of coercion and exploitation. When you reconnect with life (in all its forms) you truly broaden your horizons, and that feels good. You deserve to finally feel good about yourself and life!