As we think more about achieving wellbeing, let’s discuss the most common feeling with which people have trouble:
Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion that includes thoughts, sensations, and the urge to behave in specific ways. It occurs after your fear circuitry is triggered in the presence of ongoing uncertainty.
Our fear circuitry is a highly perceptive, adaptive, and primitive part of our brain that kept us alive as a species and is up against different challenges in the modern world. When fear is triggered, there is a pattern of sensations, thoughts, and urges that come with it that are adaptive. Specifically:
Sensations present during fear (aka fight-or-flight response): Heart races, blood pressure increases, pupils dilate, sweating, shortness of breath, and digestion rapidly decreases.
Thoughts present during fear: Catastrophic, worst-case scenarios are generated. Thoughts are experienced as “sticky” or as if the presence of the thoughts means that they are actually occurring. This is called thought-action fusion (TAF). Although thought-action fusion is also “irrational,” it is important to recognize that thought-action fusion in the presence of real danger is very adaptive. Pulling your hand away at the same time (or even before) you have the thought “my hand is touching fire” is an adaptive example of thought-action fusion.
Urges to behave present during fear: The combination of the sensations that fear generates plus the sticky catastrophic thoughts drives you to respond to what you experience either through “fighting” (aka problem-solving) or “fleeing” (aka avoidance).
Fighting or fleeing has been incredibly adaptive throughout human history and when fear is actually alerting you to danger, either problem solving or avoiding the situation is the appropriate response.
However, many situations that trigger the fear response in modern life are not actually dangerous situations, but rather uncertain situations. If you misinterpret either the uncertainty or the sensations, thoughts, and urges that occur during the fear response as an indication of danger itself, what you do in response to your fear will increase and maintain your anxiety state, turning it into an anxiety disorder.
So, an anxiety state is an emotion that triggers flight-or-flight sensations, catastrophic thoughts, and the urge to problem solve or avoid.