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The spectrum of responses to anxiety

Your response to an anxiety state depends on your interpretation of the meaning of that state. The meaning that you could give an anxiety state ranges from danger on one side to opportunity on the other. 

People who believe “anxiety = danger” avoid internal and external situations that make them anxious. 

This is the primary misinterpretation that you are making if you have an anxiety disorder. It is true that the fear response (including sensations, thoughts, and an urge to problem solve or avoid) is triggered when there is a perceived threat, but the presence of the fear response does not equate to danger. 

What’s more, if, through learned behavior, you start believing that the fear response itself is dangerous, you will avoid more and more until your world is very small. For example, if you fear that your sensations will lead to a panic attack you will avoid anything internally or externally that might lead to a panic attack. Or, if you fear having certain thoughts, you will avoid internal or external situations that might trigger those thoughts or perform physical or mental compulsions to make the thoughts go away when they inevitably occur. In both cases, you are misinterpreting the fear response as equivalent to danger. The more you avoid your thoughts and feelings, the more often they will occur. 

People who believe “anxiety = uncomfortable, but not dangerous” pursue internal and external situations that could make them anxious and then attempt to do things to cope with the anxiety. 

Western society encourages us to think this way. It is a slightly better position than equating anxiety with danger, but the problem with this position is that the attitude still lacks acceptance of whatever thought or feeling is occurring. As long as you feel like you have to work to “manage” what you experience, you will risk getting burnt out by the effort of “staying in control.” For long-term wellbeing, it’s best to learn to open up to whatever thoughts or feelings occur without believing that those thoughts and feelings need to be managed. 

People who believe “anxiety = opportunity” purse internal and external situations that make them anxious on purpose, and then interpret the feeling as excitement. 

The most helpful attitude toward anxiety is one where it is interpreted as normal, healthy, and an indication that the person is engaging in something challenging and uncertain. 

Professional athletes, musicians, and performers all feel the same physiology as the anxious person when they are about to perform. They are able to channel their “anxiety” into high performance because they accept and get distance from their self-doubt and use the physical sensations to urge them towards behavior that is effective in that moment. 

Even the anxiety associated with an unwanted, intrusive thought occurring in OCD can be re-interpreted as an opportunity for curiosity towards your mind and how it functions. It can deepen your compassion for yourself and others.

This attitude, about any form of anxiety, is available to everyone and is learnable.