Feeling under siege? How to separate reality from fear. And how to cope.

Feeling under siege (c) KarinSieger.com

Feeling under siege? Is it real or imagined? How to get to the truth?

There are times in our lives when we are threatened and attacked (by individuals, institutions, circumstances, illnesses etc). And than there are times when we feel as if we are threatened and attacked, but it is actually not so. How can such a misperception happen and what can we do about it?


I wrote this article before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s popularity now reflects what an important topic it is.

(NB: In this article I do not discuss the kind of paranoia, which can be symptomatic of a personality disorder. In that case, more appropriate medical, therapeutic or psychiatric help may be needed. I trust you appreciate me clarifying this at the outset.)

You may know the feeling when reality and fear merge and we can no longer separate one from the other. That is human. I have been there and you probably have been there, too.

The problem is not about whether it happens, but knowing when it does, and knowing what to do about it. So we do not get stuck in a siege mentality.

1. When attack is real.

Actual threats and attacks can happen in many ways – verbally, physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. The other person may be known to us, or not. They may do it intentionally, or not. Indeed, you and I may have done it to others.

Whatever the story, when we are threatened or attacked, 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:

  • Defend ourselves, passively or actively – flight or fight.
  • Withdraw or go on the attack.
  • Sometimes, we opt for the appropriate approach and sometimes we don’t.

Ultimately, we crave safety and want the threat and attack to stop.

2. Feeling under siege when attack is not real.

The term describes a specific mentality of victimization and defensiveness – a bunker mentality. It is based on the experience of actual military defenses, and can also occur in societies and groups with ideological isolation.

A bunker or siege mentality can also happen to individuals, you and I.

What I am focusing on here, is when we feel constantly under attack; but the attack is perceived and not real.

3. How can feeling under siege come about?

When it happens, 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.

The reasons for this can vary. It 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. That’s when we can become vulnerable to feeling under siege.

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.

4. What does feeling under siege feel like?

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.

Heightened and prolonged stress can lead to hormonal changes like an increase in cortisol, which can interfere with our physical and emotional wellbeing.

Socially we may become more irritable, argumentative, aggressive or withdrawn.

Emotionally feeling under siege can can lead to heightened anxiety, depression, anger and loneliness.

In a way, it all makes sense.

Feeling under siege means our thoughts, behaviour and feelings reflect a heightened state of 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.

5. What to do when we feel under siege, which is not real?

It is not impossible to regain the all important sense of proportion, for our sense of judgment to recover and for the state of imagined siege to get weaker and ultimately to end.

It all goes back to self-trust, feeling in control, connecting or reconnecting with a more resilient sense of self: the belief and trust that we have equal value to everyone else around us.

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.

5a. Do a Reality Check

An Example:

You feel and believe that no one understands you. Everything seems to be a problem, a difficulty, a struggle. Too much is going wrong. You start doubting yourself. No one has a kind word for you. No one cares about you. You feel frustrated, angry, sad and tired, want to stay away from people, but want them to show you genuine closeness – all at the same time. It is confusing and exhausting.

Against that background, you feel someone is ignoring you. And you start to wonder about their motives and start to feel threatened.

Try this:

Notice it – calmly.

Observe yourself: Your thoughts. How you feel. How you behave.

“S/he has it in for me. What’s going on? What have I done? What do you want from me? I need to watch you, but also avoid you. I feel nervous in my stomach and my heart is racing.” I can go on. But you get the point.

Try to gradually separate out what has actually happened (or not) from what you are feeling and thinking might be going on.

Is there another way of looking at this? Is there another possibility?

“Has something actually happened? Could it be about them, and not about me? Do they have an off time, or simply behave badly? Do I feel threatened by them, because I feel generally under siege?”

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.

Indeed, when we feel under siege, our change in behaviour may make people feel uneasy about us, and it all becomes a confusing vicious circle.

Try to start moderating your feelings of fear and anger. Are you really that vulnerable?

Think – what are your response options?

What has been happening in your life recently for you to have ended up in this place?

How have you dealt (or not) with what has happened?

5b. Take care, take care, take care and slow down!

In addition to the reality check, it is important – no, let me re-phrase this – it is non-negotiable that you cut down on stress and slow down your life.

To get back in touch with reality, it is essential that our mind and body can calm down, instead of being constantly overloaded with stimuli.

We need to come to rest mentally, emotionally and physically to be able to start developing some kind of sense of proportion and to re-connect with reality.

Do things that connect you with yourself, your body, others and the world around you. And do it with intention and consciously.

Feed your senses, by going out and taking in the colour, smells and textures that surround you. Ideally, go into a pleasant environment in nature.

Undertake some gentle physical exercise, walking is perfect, and feel your body, your feet, your muscles.

Get a massage or reflexology to help you relax, balance out blocked energies, feed and feel your body.

Listen to things you like and that make you feel comfortable.

There is so much you can do to help you relax, restore energy and with that your confidence.

6. However, you might conclude that threats and attacks are real.

Then your hyper vigilance may be justified and necessary.

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. 

How to cope with panic attacks

How to cope with nightmares

How to cope with news anxiety





(Based on an article published by Positively Positive!!)

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Thanks to all my readers, my website is among the Top 10 UK Psychotherapy Blogs


  1. thank you for this article. I can relate feeling overly under siege in a relationship and I’m trying to figure out if it’s my past (trauma) or if I am actually under attack. My partner is quick to claim that he is not attacking me. I like your suggestions to work on calming myself down so I can think more clearly about what is actually happening. I will work harder on myself to overcome constantly reacting defensively. Thank you.

    • Hello Angela, thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, we should not dismiss what we are feeling. Sometimes it can be hard to read correctly what we feel. We might jump into old patterns of interpretation and responding which may not apply. If in doubt, and the situation concerns you, then I would suggest finding a neutral person / professional (eg a relationship counsellor or therapist) to talk it over with. Very best wishes for you. Karin

  2. A dream actually triggered the feeling that my reputation has been ruined. I woke up feeling that everyone feels the same way about me.

    Thank you for this article, It helped me get a perspective. I wished you would have dived deeper into how to get in touch with reality by listing things you can do like journaling, meditation, or whatever would work. You can gave an outline which a person who is feeling normal can easily figure out what will work from them, but a person feeling under attack needs a more step by step and direct approach.
    Maybe a part 2?

    • Hello Tavleen, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I like your suggestions and no doubt they will assist others visiting this article. I will consider what you have said with a view to expand this piece. Thanks again and very wishes. Karin

      • Wow, this is me to a T. When I become drained or my business doesn’t thrive I start to feel under siege in the rest of my life. I have complex trauma disorder and this leads to me believing that I am unloved and misunderstood. I become physically drained, irritable and project my insecurities onto my loving partner.. it’s exhausting living in a state of vigilance

        • Hi Claire, thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, vigilance is exhausting, too many stress hormones, difficult to think straight. Do take care, esp at this point in time. Very best. Karin

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