Instead of “I’m anxious,” try “I feel threatened”

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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.