cw: teaching to learn
I have a long history with anxiety, and I’m pretty good at noticing when it’s happening. The problem is that I’m always anxious. Noticing anxiety doesn’t snap me out of anxiety– in fact, it often produces meta-anxiety, anxiety about feeling anxious. So I’ve tried a simple reframe lately, and I’m liking the results. Instead of noting “I’m anxious,” I say to myself “I feel threatened” or “I feel threatened by x” if I know what set me off.
Anxiety is just chronically being in a state of fight or flight, and fight or flight has a stimulus. I like Sapolsky’s thesis, which is roughly that for most animals, the stimulus is always something external, a threat to safety or status. For anxious humans, the threatening stimuli are internalized, and fight or flight is either triggered or sustained by thoughts. Anxiety is the condition of feeling threatened.
And yet, noticing that I feel threatened is much more specific than noticing that I’m anxious, whether I can identify the threat or not. It makes what I’m feeling less about me (I’m just anxious; my perception is inaccurate; oh, why don’t I just stop???) and more about the pattern of behavior (I’m reacting this way because I perceive that thing to be a threat; is it really a threat?; if it is, is it something I can handle?).
In the short time I’ve been practicing this, I’ve identified many things I had not realized I considered threats, although, of course, on the feeling level I had always known. I’m surprised by how mundane most of the threats are. Many of them are just “I feel threatened because that noise startled me.” But others are kind of embarrassing or incongruent with my self-concept. For example, I’m threatened by other people being better than me. I would find myself stiff and clearly in fight or flight when singing in a group, for instance, and I used to just nurse that anxiety for the entire practice thinking, “Fuck, I’m anxious, I can’t breathe, my singing is therefore terrible, and I must be blushing…” But with this technique, I notice the anxious symptoms and see if I can identify the “threat” that tripped them. To my shock, it was usually as simple as another person singing really well, or me not knowing how to sight read when others could. Such everyday, simple provocations! At this point, I don’t have much pride left to be embarrassed with, but it’s still humbling to see my mountains of anxiety for the molehills of petty jealousy and insecurity they could have stayed.
I don’t blame myself for getting carried away. Anxiety is the master of false narratives. An injection of anxiety causes my thoughts to speed up and start going down rabbitholes of what to do, all premised on unseen assumptions I’m making about the nature and severity of the threat. There’s no time or brainpower to examine every hasty conclusion when you’re swept up in that wave. Reining in anxiety is necessarily a process. It can be embarrassing to realize just how simple the “threat” that led to hours (or days, or months, or years…) of anxiety was, but it’s also such a relief! Admitting I’m jealous or petty or flawed is a small price to pay to reclaim some peace.