Distinguish between anxiety and danger

Before we discuss the difference between danger and anxiety, several people wondered about whether or not their self-talk was compulsive or Wise Mind. I want to say more about that:

The voice of Wise Mind is always orienting you towards a therapeutic attitude of acceptance of what you’re currently experiencing. 

Sometimes Wise Mind is educational. He knows what’s happening. He might say, “You feel dizzy because your breathing changed rapidly. You aren’t in danger.” 
Sometimes Wise Mind is observational. She’s watching. She might say, “Notice that we’re having thoughts. We often have these types of thoughts when we do what we’re currently doing.”
Sometimes Wise Mind is encouraging. He believes in you. He might say, “Uncertainty! Great! This is an opportunity for us!”

If your Wise Mind is an internalized compassionate parent, she’s the type of parent that is always helping move towards what you value. 

If the voice that is responding to your Worried Voice is arguing with the content of your worried voice, it is False Comfort, rather than Wise Mind. 

Here’s another example: 

Worried Voice: “Am I a good person?” 
False Comfort: “Yes, of course, you’re a good person.”
Wise Mind: “You’re having a thought that feels like a problem because you feel uncertain.”

Notice that Wise Mind doesn’t respond to content, but rather reminds you of what’s happening so that you can relate effectively to it. Sometimes the message from Wise Mind happens to be comforting, but Wise Mind isn’t trying to be comforting. Wise Mind doesn’t believe that your thoughts and feelings require comfort. Remember she likes all of you and thoughts and feelings are part of your experience. Wise Mind is watching kindly, orienting you towards acting according to your values. When you can consistently identify what you value and act on it, and when you relate well to the thoughts and feelings that such action creates, you may find that you aren’t in need of being comforted. 

Core Principle Module 2: Distinguish between anxiety and danger 

In this module, we’ll cover: 

  • Anxiety sensitivity and the neurobiology of anxiety and uncertainty
  • Slow down urgency
  • Reason through stakes and odds
  • Differentiate between signal and noise

Anxiety sensitivity

Anxiety sensitivity is the fear of arousal-related sensations, arising from beliefs that the sensations will have adverse consequences such as death, insanity, or social rejection.

You can think about it as second fear. Whereas first fear is the automatic fight-or-flight reaction that arrives in response to a perceived threat, second fear is the interpretation that the sensations themselves are a threat.

Anxiety sensitivity amplifies the automatic anxiety reaction. The tendency to respond to arousal-related sensations with terror is heritable. Sensitivity runs in families and the thinking patterns that perpetuate terror are socialized. From which side of your family did you get your anxiety or OCD? It might be both. If the answer isn’t obvious, look for substance use or emotional avoidance. Sometimes it is hard to tell that someone is very anxious because he drinks a lot or rarely lets herself be vulnerable. As you are reflecting on your family history of anxiety, it’s okay to have the feeling of anger if that’s what occurs. You can also try intentionally orienting yourself towards compassion. Your parents and their parents and their parents and their parents have all likely suffered from anxiety just like you. All of you deserve compassion. 

Taking responsibility for your anxiety disorder requires that you learn what sensitizes you and make a plan for those situations. The best way to disarm anxiety sensitivity is to get accurate information about your sensations. Pay attention to the sensations that scare you and ask about them in group.

Overall, anxious sufferers benefit from understanding that feeling afraid of feeling afraid is a biological and socialized pattern that maintains suffering. We can reduce but not eliminate the biological processes that make sensitization more likely. We can eliminate the socialized processes that maintain sensitization by changing how you think and respond to your biological process.  

Slow down urgency

Remember “I’ll do that slowly?” Read it again here

Reason through stakes and odds

To the anxious mind, everything feels like a threat. We made it to 2019! Thanks, Mind! Feeling like a threat doesn’t make something a threat. When the content of your fear is really valuable to you, the stakes seem too high to tolerate the possibility that it could be true. Thinking of the possibility that something is true does not make it any more true. I just had the thought, “Maybe I’ll win the lottery today.” It’s a possibility. Having a thought about that possibility doesn’t make it more likely. Feeling excited as I have a thought about that possibility also doesn’t make it more likely. I’m just having thoughts and feelings. 

Same goes for your content. Having a thought about the possibility of having a major health concern doesn’t make it more likely, even if you feel uncertain while you think about it. Having a thought about the possibility of harming your children, your students, your patients, your neighbors while feeling uncertain doesn’t it make it more likely. It’s a thought and a feeling of uncertainty that is getting you to engage with it until it seems like a possibility. 

Use your reason. Just because the stakes of what you fear are high (that is, if it were true, it would be hard to live with), doesn’t make it more likely to be true. Your feared content is a possibility the way me winning the lottery is a possibility. When you surrender to the uncertainty of it, you are not accepting that the feared consequence would be okay. You are reasoning through and deciding that even though the stakes of what you fear are very high, the odds of it are very low, and protecting against the possibility of it with avoidance, compulsions, and worry is just causing suffering. 

Differentiate between signal and noise

After you theoretically understand that your biology plus your response to your biology maintains your anxiety, let’s orient you towards compassion and curiosity. You might feel demoralized, frustrated, or ashamed of your biology or your response to your biology. It’s okay to put those feelings aside for a second, so that we can be curious about this together anyway. 

What if… in the presence of anxiety sensitivity, your mind is hearing signal where there is only noise? The catastrophic thoughts you have are present due to your sensitization, not because they are threats. You think it’s music, but it’s actually static. We’re talking scary movie music, by the way, not dance party music. How could you possibly confuse Taylor Swift and static? 

A problem to solve is like music to your ears. You love solving problems. When your feeling of anxiety or the experience of worry is signaling action you can take right now with your arms and legs go solve that problem. Dance to that music. 

Many times the problem is not solvable because it is inherently uncertain. An example is “will my loved ones be safe and happy?” Sometimes the problem is solvable but it is not solvable right now.  An example is “will that thing I’m doing in three weeks go well?” Sometimes there is a solvable problem, but the part about which you worry is not solvable. An example is “How will people judge me after I complete the thing I’m working on?” All of this is noise or static. When you hear static, freeze dance! Do nothing. Notice the thoughts and redirect your attention. 

I have lots more to say on this. I wrote several thousands words on the different types of repetitive negative thinking and how to respond to it. You can read it here

In summary, 

  • Think about your parents for a minute and bring up an attitude of compassion about their anxiety sensitivity and your anxiety sensitivity. 
  • Make a plan for managing the biological reality of your anxiety sensitivity.
  • Make a plan for embracing the cognitive and behavioral reality of your anxiety sensitivity. Your plan is: 
    • When you’re experiencing fear of fear, slow down. Urgency is a feeling, not a threat. 
    • Use your reason rather than your feelings to decide whether the odds of your fear are likely.
    • Pump yourself up for the dance party. Shift your thinking to “This is an opportunity for me. I can’t miss this.” rather than “I hate this. Get me out of this. I need this to be over now.” 
    • Decide between signal and noise, Taylor Swift and static, a problem to solve or an uncertainty to disregard. 

You might get stuck at any point in this process. Many people theoretically understand anxiety sensitivity, but have trouble showing themselves compassion for it and making a plan to manage it. Many people know that urgency is part of anxiety, but don’t practice slowing down when they feel anxious. Many people know that the odds of their fears are low, but reason based on what they feel anyway. Most people have trouble believing their anxious moment is an opportunity and don’t embrace it when it happens. When people get stuck in worry, it’s often because it’s hard for them to see that some of their fears are inherently uncertain. It’s okay to be exactly where you are and I know how to work with all of this. Let’s talk more about each stuck point in Community Time and groups.