By Lauren Helm, M.A.
We’ve all felt it at some point in our lives (likely many times over, in fact), though perhaps it manifested in different ways. You may have noticed the rapidly increasing pitter-patter of your heart, the fast, constricted breaths, the growing tension in your shoulders and neck, clammy hands, or maybe a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach. The experience of anxiety is unpleasant, to say the least, and as it builds, it certainly has a way of getting our attention.
Why do we experience these uncomfortable sensations that we call anxiety? From an evolutionary perspective, fear and anxiety (two related but slightly different emotions) have a function: they keep us alive. More specifically, fear and anxiety are emotions that occur in response to a perceived threat. When we believe that something may harm us or is dangerous, we feel these emotions and they motivate us to protect ourselves from the danger, typically either by avoiding or escaping the threat. Without fear or anxiety, we may not react to truly dangerous situations in an adaptive way, and thus not survive as a species. Imagine walking along and crossing paths with a Grizzly Bear. Would it be helpful to feel no fear, and to run up and hug it? Obviously for most of us, this would not end well! Our emotions give us invaluable information about the environment and about what actions we should take, based on how we feel.
As incredible as our brains are, they also are prone to errors. We are not always able to accurately assess the true amount of danger (or safety) that may be present in our surroundings. Sometimes this means that we may miss a true threat that was present and suffer the consequences. However, in our modern day society, more often than not we experience the opposite – we overestimate the true amount of threat and thereby experience excessive anxiety as a result.
The problem with excessive anxiety is that it can negatively impact the quality of our lives in multiple ways. Prolonged, pervasive anxiety has an impact on our physical well-being, in addition to our psychological well-being. Chronic stress and anxiety can lead to a deterioration of optimal physical functioning, preventing your immune system, digestive system, and heart from performing the best that they can. Chronic anxiety may also interfere with your ability to sleep, eat, and generally function as you’d like to in life.
How does anxiety become problematic? Cognitive-behavioral therapists tend to understand most mood and anxiety disorders using the cognitive triad, which breaks down our experiences into thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. In brief, anxiety is both developed and maintained by an interplay between certain unhelpful thinking and behavioral patterns. For example, anxiety may be perpetuated by certain ways of thinking. A low threshold for perceiving threat (i.e. situations very easily feel threatening) and an attentional bias to threat (i.e. focusing and narrowing your attention on potential dangers that surround you) can contribute to feeling anxiety. In other words, if we easily feel threatened and continue to be on the lookout for threat, we will likely frequently feel anxious. Another thinking pattern that feeds anxiety is called catastrophic thinking. Catastrophic thinking occurs when our mind jumps to imagining worst-case scenarios when we are uncertain about an outcome. For example, our mind may imagine that our loved one has been involved in a car accident because they still haven’t returned home 30 minutes after they said that they would. Furthermore, probability overestimation occurs along with catastrophic thinking – this is when we overestimate how likely it is that the “worst-case scenario” has or will occur. When we are feeling anxious, we often feel very certain that the worst-case scenario will occur even though realistically-speaking, the chances are much lower (or are little to none) that what we fear will actually happen. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to recognize this while we are in the midst of severe anxiety – instead, we may engage in worry orrumination (i.e. brooding) about the many possible negative “what if” scenarios, and use extensive cognitive energy to plan for or prevent potential future threats from occurring. In moderation, worrying and planning for future threats can be helpful, but when it begins to take excessive time and energy (which is quite exhausting), it becomes maladaptive and interferes with your ability to function optimally. More often than not, the cost of worrying exceeds the benefits (it may become a waste of energy) and actually feeds the anxiety that it is intending to placate.
These are just a few ways that our patterns of thinking can create and maintain anxiety. In our next blog, we will talk more about unhelpful or inaccurate thinking patterns (also called cognitive distortions) and some suggestions for creating more adaptive ways of thinking and behaving in response to anxiety.
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Barlow, D. H. (2004). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic. Guilford press.
Behar, E., DiMarco, I. D., Hekler, E. B., Mohlman, J., & Staples, A. M. (2009). Current theoretical models of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Conceptual review and treatment implications. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23(8), 1011-1023.
Beck, A. T., Emery, G., & Greenberg, R. L. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: A cognitive perspective. Basic Books.
Sibrava, N. J., & Borkovec, T. D. (2006). The cognitive avoidance theory of worry. Worry and its psychological disorders: Theory, assessment and treatment, 239-256.
Tags: anxiety, cognitive behavioral thearpy, anxiety therapy san diego, anxiety therapy, worry, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, cognitive distortions, emotion regulation, anxiety disorders, unhelpful thinking