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.


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While I find your solution thought provoking, I am not sure I agree with your conclusions. Suffering from chronic anxiety myself, I know it not to be a cognitive process. My problem is not that I spend effort cogitating on a solution to a non-existent threat, but rather that the constant feeling of dread poisons my everiday existence. False attributions are a typical byproduct of this state: one rarely experiences such feelings without also being compelled to find an explanation as to why they came about, arguably, because in a healthy mind, one would expect that such states of mind would only appear when warranted by an external event. However, the problem with chronic anxiety is that there are no such events. The creation of false narratives prompted by a natural desire for explanation only serves to maintain or magnify the state. In the examples you provided, cases where your solution worked for you, the state of anxiety is in fact prompted by real events, no matter how insignificant they may appear to be, and I would argue that the reaction to them was a normal flight or fight response, albeit one that was maybe exaggerated. In the case of chronic anxiety, I believe attribution is to be avoided rather than encouraged. Oftentimes you are experiencing dread without any real external triggers whatsoever, providing no readily available, preferably small threat that you can safely attribute it to. In such cases the mind tends to go toward generalized reasons such as job security, health, financial security, self-worth and the like, which really only serve to aggravate the situation, as these are not simple events that are temporally limited or that can be dismissed as insignificant. Transforming an already false attribution of “I am anxious that I will lose my job” into “I am threatened that I will lose my job” serves no purpose, or so it seems, unless it also helps in the realization that there are in fact no actual threats to your continued employment at that precise moment (the value of which would be dubious in any case, as your mind will then wander to find other causes for your feeling of anxiety). Maybe your solution works in cases where an over-exaggerated response to stimuli is the issue, but in cases where anxiety exists without obvious external causes, where false attribution is a bigger problem, I would still think that addressing the false attribution itself by realizing that your mind state has no cause is a safer approach.

I see what you're saying about false attributions, which seriously exacerbate anxiety, but I'm talking about piecing together the actual series of events that occurred when you became anxious, not the things you subsequently started worrying about. I actually don't think feelings of chronic anxiety have no proximate cause and come up out of nowhere. Of course no one knows this for sure, but my belief based on the high efficacy of CBT for anxiety, my experience with CBT and Buddhism, and my own introspection is that thoughts are the triggers and sustainers of chronic anxiety. Most people can learn to identify the thoughts that sustain their anxiety and see for themselves that they contain cognitive distortions. Furthermore, I believe that the anxious feelings that call up the thoughts usually do come from some external trigger, however subtle. Being on your commute where you're normally stressed, someone giving you a confusing look, or having feelings you're not supposed to have (like jealousy) can be enough to get an anxiety storm going.

For any particular instance of anxiety coming "out of nowhere," my prior is now that there was an external prompt or trigger. I'm not saying anxiety was a called for reaction (if it ever is), but it was the reaction to something that you perceived as a threat to your safety, status, self-concept, etc. Often the trigger is so small that you don't consciously notice it, drawn instead by anxiety's slight of hand to worry about health, safety, all the things you listed.

Maybe the threat reframe doesn't work for you, but for some reason it does for me. When I ask myself what's threatening me right now, the answer tends to be more real and immediate than when I ask myself "why am I anxious?" and get a bunch of general reasons that might justify feeling distressed. I think the threat question cuts through a lot of the shame I have at feeling negative feelings towards other people. I believe my anxiety results in large part from wanting to avoid and not to have to acknowledge those feelings. Reminding myself that I'm perceiving my natural feelings and reactions as threats helps to check one of the most common causes of my anxiety.

From a nomenclature perspective, yes of course, in worry / anxiety or similarly, sadness / depression pairs, the latter ones are meant to refer to the pathologic version of the affect. I’m sorry for the sloppiness in my language.

With attribution though, I was intending to mean that affects that are triggered by unconscious mental states are often (wrongly) attrubuted to available external events as causes after the fact, rather than the more common meaning of cogitatively attributing some cause to an effect, as a way of explaining (and potentially coming to the wrong explanation). In these cases the real trigger - the unconscious mental state - remains hidden. I never meant to imply there are no triggers at all, just that the trigger is not a readily apparent external cause one tends to attribute it to. Affects indeed do not appear randomly. In pathologic cases of anxiety / depression (and other conditions), this tends to be the prevailing mechanism. Therefore, I also don’t think that you can “follow the chain of causation” in these cases, because elements of it will remain hidden from your conscious access. You can follow the chain of apparent causations though - I imagine this could be a helpful exercise in CBT, but I don’t know much about that.

When you say “I doubt this actually occurs that often”: phenomenally, you may be right, depending on the severity of the case. Pathologically though I am on a different view. Attribution works in such a way that you will rarely have the conscious experience that anxiety is there, but you struggle to find a cause: your mind will latch on to any possible cause available at the time in your environment, such as “a person looking at you sideways”, but it will not be the actual trigger (which will remain hidden in your subconscious). In these cases, causality is backwards.

You can catch misattribution in the act when no events that are susceptible to become causes are readily available - for example, you wake up in the morning and the feeling of dread just “sets in” - your mind will then wander toward future or generalized causes. If many of your mornings are like that, you will after a while inevitably realize that your anxiety is not in fact triggered by some external cause, despite the fact that your mind will readily, albeit falsely, present you with one.

You have mentioned Buddhism, and I agree that it is successful in mitigating anxiety, precisely because your subconscious triggers (“sankharas” in Buddhist parlance) will surface during Vipassana mediataion, and will be linked to a peaceful state of mind through associative habituation. This is a method of dealing with anxiety I have no problems with.

I have to agree that your method can be helpful when there is an external event to which your mind can latch on, where the re-framing you suggest can quicken the realization that the anxiety you experience has no real cause, or - if anxeity was indeed triggered by, and not attributed to the event - that the cause is not significant. If these are the cases you experience most often, then I understand that you find this method helpful. If anyone is in a similar situation, they may also benefit from your suggestions.

However, very much in the vein of agreeing with you that thoughts can trigger and maintain anxiety, I remain in my opinion that when attributions veer toward generalized causes for lack of an available external event, this method would act as a negative reinforcement that would exacerbate, rather than alleviate the problem.

From a nomenclature perspective, yes of course, in worry / anxiety or similarly, sadness / depression pairs, the latter ones are meant to refer to the pathologic version of the affect.

That seems surprising to me to read. suggests that the word anxiety refers to the normal emotion. Sadness also seems to be a word for an emotion. Worry doesn't seem to me like a word that points to an emotion but a word that points to a mental process (similarly to how feeling threadened is a mental process).

Depression on the other hand isn't an emotion but a more permanent state of mind. It's more similar to anxiety disorder.

Ah, I see. I think our disagreement comes down to experience. I've had my share of misattributions, but through practice with CBT and mindfulness, I'm now pretty good at noticing quickly after I experience an anxiety spike. Then I just have to replay the last few minutes, and usually I feel triggered again when I get to the original trigger. I'm not saying this gives me clarity on whatever "underlying issues" may also cause anxiety, but it's usually immistakable that that event minutes ago triggered the anxiety that started then.

If I don't realize that some small thing just gave me an uptick in anxiety, that's when I start misattributing it to big life issues. But if I wasn't able to identify anxiety spikes quickly and identify the proximate cause with confidence, finding the proximate cause could just be another playground for anxiety.

"Oftentimes you are experiencing dread without any real external triggers whatsoever, providing no readily available, preferably small threat that you can safely attribute it to."

Again, I doubt this actually occurs that often. My prior is that there is some trigger whatsoever in most cases. Perhaps it is better not to try to find a cause, though, if you think it most likely you'll turn up something false.

I'm not recommending you try to dispatch with your anxious feelings through (mis)attribution. When I realize something like jealousy is keeping me tense and distressed, usually the real (still unpleasant) feeling comes to the fore and fight-or-flight recedes on its own. But sometimes I realize what's happening and still feel anxious, just more mindful and not spinning off into false attributions as much. I'm not recommending you seek the relief of an answer to soothe yourself, but rather that you remember that, when you are feeling anxious, your body is preparing you to deal with what it perceives as a threat. With mindful observation, it is often possible to determine what set off anxiety and led to the cascade of imaginary threats. And very often, thinking about the perceived threat consciously cuts it down to size.

The true thing that is threatening you may not be insignificant, and may feel really terrible. But we don't call it anxiety if someone is having a totally proportional reaction to their problems.

This isn't obviously pertinent to the topics of this specific post, but the idea of chronic or frequent, and persistent, anxiety reminds me a lot of the ideas behind Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, namely that the anxiety is a strategy by which a 'protector', a cognitive and emotional part of you, is protecting one or more 'exiles', other parts that in a sense 'encapsulate' trauma.

The IFS practices seem, on their face, very different from CBT or (Buddhist) meditation traditions, but I suspect they're leveraging much of the same internal 'machinery' of the mind.

In a comment on this post you mention that you "replay the last few minutes, and usually I feel triggered again when I get to the original trigger.". That reads very much like IFS ideas about communicating with one's parts, at first protectors, e.g. a part that uses an "anxiety trance" to avoid exposing other traumatized parts to something negative, and then, with the 'explicit agreement' of the relevant protectors, the 'underlying' exiles.

I've never heard of IFS in particular but I really like the sound of it! I have sort of naturally started experiencing my mind as consisting of multiple parts and agents as a result of therapy and introspection (also studying neuroscience and evolutionary psychology). It really helps me to understand and accept my mind as it is when I don't believe it's actually one consistent thing, but multiple modules with potentially conflicting goals.

You may be interested in my article about IFS, as well as this recent talk by its developer which I think gives a good overview of the model.

I've had some success overcoming everyday fears by trying to be courageous in my thoughts and actions. For me it works better than trying to think my way out of feeling afraid. But I never had chronic anxiety and don't know if that approach would work there - have people tried it?

I have also found this but I found that it created technical debt in my brain. For instance doing this with social anxiety just led me to a constant low level of social anxiety that I was always suppressing by being courageous. This led me to come up with other excuses to not socialize so that I didn't have to be courageous.

Courage is really important to me, too. But I don't even remember to try courage if I'm an anxiety trance. It's hard to direct courage at diffuse feelings. Identifying "threats" when I can makes applying courage more possible.

The word "state" might be more helpful than the word "trance" for researching relevant information and resources.

Yeah, I doubt you'll find "trance" in the literature, but that's what I meant so that's what I said.

Why? It just points to a different discourse. You get plenty of hits when you google "anxiety trance". It's not language I would expect in a scientific publication but conceptualization I would expect to find in NLP/hypnosis discourse.

I'd offer a different question. And I'd suggest a reframe of anxiety. Anxiety is about the body delivering more energy to itself, it comes with extra mindful attention, and it's about protection yes, but not necessarily threat.

Most of the time when I get some sensation like anxiety I'm thinking about how I might benefit from this extra energy that my s1 has decided I need. How I might use it to pay extra attention and me more vigilant or cautious for errors.

As you said it's not really a threat, for me it's more about my concern that I'll make a mistake.

"anxious" energy is here to help me to be more vigilant and cautious about this concern.

The other previous way to reframe is to put anxiety as excitement. And act accordingly.

Given the way emotions work there's a danger of false attributions as rpapp suggests. If I for example show a person with arachnophobia an image of a spider for 20 milliseconds they will feel anxiety but they won't know why they feel it. The image is enough to trigger the emotional stimulus but it's not enough to raise to cognitive awareness. The mental processes that produce anxiety are strong enough to match patterns that don't rise to cognitive attention.

If that person then goes and says "I feel threatened" and tries to reason about why they feel threatened, there's a good chance that they come up with another reason for why the feeling exists.

Debugging a false reason can still release the negative emotion and help you deal with it, but you shouldn't take it too seriously. Hold it lightly. It's similar to how past-life regression can help people deal with emotional issues. It's a technique that works, but if you take all the information that comes out of it as being literal truth you run into problems.

The correct mental stance is a light one of curiosity and exploration and not one of "I now have to accept the serious reality of how flawed I am".

In addition I would expect that you will be better able to deal with the feeling if you first feel into the felt sense as taught in Gendlin's Focusing.

There's are two emotional ways to react when threatened. One is anger and the other is anxiety. It frequently happens that people suffer from anxiety because they don't allow themselves to be angry because they want to be a "nice guy" or "nice girl". David D. Burns sees this need to be nice as one of the pillars of a lot of cases of people have anxiety disorder in When Panic Attacks.

I see now that I didn't adequately emphasize my experience with meditation and CBT-style thought dissection enough, and perhaps my advice is terrible if you have not done those things first. Thinking in terms of "my body feels threatened" helps me because I 1) have the mindfulness to notice quickly, 2) I am able to rewind the tape a little and, often, recall the moment the anxiety wave broke over me even though I wasn't mindful of it at the time, which 3) often makes the "threat" clear. Noticing the things I consider threats helps me to keep them in perspective as I continue to encounter them. Mostly importantly, realizing the banal thing that actually triggered my anxiety helps me not to make false attributions.

It frequently happens that people suffer from anxiety because they don't allow themselves to be angry because they want to be a "nice guy" or "nice girl". David D. Burns sees this need to be nice as one of the pillars of a lot of cases of people have anxiety disorder in When Panic Attacks.

Hear, hear. Yes, this is what I think was happening with me and jealousy. I basically felt that good person is not jealous and steeped in comparison, and so I stopped being aware of when I was jealous, getting anxious and attributing the anxiety to other stuff instead.