What really triggers anxiety? An exploration

Here are some thoughts on how I understand anxiety and what triggers anxiety.   I encourage you to check these ideas out to see if they match up with anxiety from your own direct experience.  I am curious to get some of your comments and feedback to see how much of this resonates with you!

How anxiety is triggered:

  1. Something in our environment comes into contact with one of our senses including  taste, sight, smell, hearing, or touch.  Alternatively, a thought enters the mind or our minds notice some internal sensations in the body, including emotions.  Often when these things are happening we are simply on autopilot, unaware that our minds have been drawn to one of these objects.

Note:  At this point there could be a biological response of fear, anger, sadness or other emotions.  If we see a snake we will feel fear.  This is just how the body is programmed.  No meddling or judging of the mind needed to feel this fear. This does not have to lead to an anxiety habit loop.

  1. The mind resists one of these sense contacts or resists internal body sensations, emotions, or thoughts.  Some of this resistance could be tied to prior memories of resistance to similar objects in the past.  This causes a feeling of contraction or “anxiety” in the body.  
  2. Then the mind resists this feeling of contraction or anxiety.  This causes more sensations of anxiety. Now the body is in a state of anxiety so the mind is more likely to resist whatever it becomes aware of because it will be filtered through this state of anxiety.  

So the mind is resisting these anxious unpleasant body sensations and wants to avoid them, so what can it do now?

Distraction (internal and external)

  1. External Distraction- here the mind avoids the unpleasant sensations occurring in the body through putting it’s attention elsewhere.  Some of the mind’s distraction strategies may include searching on the internet, eating, doing drugs, working too much etc.  This external distraction could be anything that distracts us from the raw vulnerability of feeling the unpleasant sensations in the body.  As I discussed in previous blog posts, this forms a habit loop with anxiety as the trigger and distraction as the behavior.  The trigger and behavior results in the reward of lowering the anxiety and makes the brain remember the trigger and behavior so it can get the reward again in the future.  We are now training our minds to distract when things get unpleasant.  
  2. Internal Distraction: Obsessive thinking- Another strategy that the mind can use to avoid these unpleasant sensations now occurring in the body is to create all sorts of obsessive ruminations.  These thoughts now become their own behaviors and result in the temporary reward of lowering the anxious sensations in the body.  However, over time we need to do more and more obsessions to get the reward of anxiety relief.  Eventually, we stop getting much of a reward at all, but the habit loop has already been created.  The brain doesn’t like change, so the habit loop persists even as we get no real reward. We have now established a habit loop with anxiety as the trigger and thinking as the behavior.  Thinking can then become the trigger for anxiety as well as the behavior.  The resulting reward is actually training the brain to produce the trigger more often.
    1. I believe that one of the benefits of distraction from the body sensations by external distraction behaviors like eating or internal distraction behaviors like obsessive thinking and OCD is that they keep us from panicking about the body sensations.  It keeps the mind that is terrified of feeling the body sensations away from focusing on its core fear.  I think this is why when I experienced panic over a couple of years, I had very little OCD thoughts during that time.  The OCD ni the past had the function of keeping me safe from experiencing panic .   
    2. Panic-
      When we experience panic, the mind is terrified of the unpleasant body sensations but is also somehow focused on them.  The panic mind is resisting the sensations of fear and anxiety in the body which is causing more and more sensations of fear and anxiety in the body.  Again, in this case as well the mind is resisting the body sensations and not wanting to feel them.  
      1. In a panic habit loop anxiety is the trigger and the behavior is thinking but it’s a different thinking from OCD or other anxiety habit loops.  It’s actually thinking about the body sensations themselves instead of obsessing about an external object of attention.  With panic, the behavior might be the thought “I can’t handle this”.   The reward is very subtle in that the thinking about the fear sensations temporarily take us away from feeling the fear sensations.  However, the reward is basically nothing which is what makes panic seem so terrible.  The panic thought then triggers more anxiety and more thoughts.  The lack of getting any real reward from a panic habit loop may make it easier to see what we are really getting from it- which is essentially only suffering without reward.  

With OCD the mind becomes stuck on thoughts about external events or about internal body sensations to avoid the sensations of fear and anxiety and difficult emotions.  WIth panic the mind becomes stuck on the sensations of fear and anxiety in the body and tries to use thinking to avoid them.  In both cases we are scared of the body sensations or emotions.  However, the OCD mind manages to shield us from them causing its own unique suffering and the panic mind keeps our attention locked on these unpleasant sensations causing its own unique suffering.  

What makes anxiety so hard?

  1.  We saw that a mind that resists experience through our sense doors is also going to resist the anxiety that comes up in the body.  However, when the body is now already anxious, it’s more likely that the mind will resist and label anything that comes through the senses or mind as dangerous.  This is just basic survival physiology.  When the body is feeling fear or anxiety, of course it’s perfectly normal that the mind will be on the lookout for danger.  We can be aware that this is likely to happen so that we can catch the mind when it’s interpreting any old thought or sensation as dangerous.  
  2. The mind is an association making machine.  When we are experiencing anxiety, any thought that was previously associated with anxiety can be sent into our consciousness as a way of  keeping us safe.  This poses a problem if we combine this with number 1 above because now when the mind sends us these thoughts, they are going to be more sticky because we are already experiencing anxiety in the body.  

Raw experience vs. judgement of experience

On one hand, we experience the raw sensory experience of being alive.   On the other hand, we have the mind’s judgments of those experiences.  This judging and interpreting of our experience is very different from the actual sensory experience.  Unfortunately, most of this judging occurs when we are on autopilot, habitually acting out old behaviors to get little rewards.   We can start to be aware of the mind’s propensity to judge our direct experience and thereby start the journey towards becoming free of acting out unconscious anxiety habit loops. 

Some examples:

Last night I was in the shower and I noticed a sensation in my throat which felt unpleasant.  Then my mind judged that unpleasant sensation as something wrong and that I needed to get rid of it.  This resistance from my mind triggered sensations of anxiety in my body.  Then I noticed that my mind wanted to resist the sensations of anxiety in the body.  Instead of just having an unpleasant sensation in my throat, now I had the unpleasant sensation in my throat and the unpleasant sensations of anxiety that were the result of my mind judging and resisting my throat sensations.  

How this might turn into OCD:  This might turn into OCD if I now go into my head to avoid the sensations and start obsessing about what these sensations in my throat actually mean.  I start wondering if I’m sick or if I have had these sensations in the past.  My mind might try to compare the current throat sensations to past sensations to prove to myself that everything is ok.  I might then go online and start searching for certainty about the sensations.  I might then have new thoughts about whether this means I have throat cancer.  Because I’m already anxious these thoughts will now have lots of power and I might start searching for answers online about the new thoughts to try to get certainty and lower the anxiety.  Now it’s hours later and I’m still searching.  However, I have managed to avoid feeling the unpleasant sensations in my body. 

How this might turn into panic:  This might turn into panic if I have a thought about how I think I’m getting sick and I can’t handle the sensations of anxiety or the throat sensations.  Now my mind will start hyperfocusing on the sensations themselves while going through storylines about how to get rid of the sensations.  Whenever my awareness fixes onto the sensations that I’m afraid of, I will be retriggered with more anxiety.  Then my mind will ressit that anxiety and I will start getting more fearful thoughts.  These thoughts will trigger more anxiety and the cycle will continue.    

Here is an example of an anxiety habit loop triggered by a thought:

 Maybe I have a thought like… “Oh no maybe I am going to be late to soccer”.  The mind resists this thought and now I feel anxiety in the body.  To get rid of this anxiety I try to think my way out of it and the cycle has started.  

Or I could have the thought “I think my boss was unhappy with my work.. Maybe I will be fired soon”.. If I am not mindful then I will resist this thought and anxiety will be triggered in the body.  Again, I may use strategies to mitigate the sensations of anxiety by trying to think my way to certainty. 
Remember Anxiety=fear+uncertainty.  We use thinking as a way to get certainty when none exists. With fear our behaviors can lead to a solution that resolves the loop.  We act to find safety and we either find it or we die.  Either way, the trigger is finite.  With anxiety, since uncertainty is part of the definition, there is no behavior that will solve the anxiety for us.

Here is an example of anxiety starting with the mind becoming aware of a smell:  I notice a chemical smell and it smells unpleasant.  My mind judges it as dangerous saying that something is wrong.  Anxiety is now triggered in the body that proves to my mind that something is dangerous and I need to do something.  The anxiety is what actually provides the “evidence” to the mind that the situation is dangerous.  If we are not mindful and miss the initial resistance of the mind to the smell, we will be caught thinking that it was the triggering smell itself that was dangerous( just like a snake is dangerous).   We may try to lower the anxiety and find safety by engaging in all sorts of mental obsessions or we may avoid the smell to get a reward of lowered anxiety.  Safety for the mind in this case means the lowering of the anxiety and not necessarily whether or not the smell itself is actually dangerous.  

These anxious behaviors set up a new habit loop.  The trigger is the chemical smell which causes anxiety.  The behavior is avoidance or thinking and obsessing about how we have smelled similar smells in the past and are safe now.  In other words, thinking that tries to gain certainty where none exists.  The reward is the temporary lowering of anxiety.  With avoidance the anxiety can be lowered until it’s triggered by the same smell or similar smells again.  With thinking behaviors we may be caught obsessing even after the smell has passed.

When emotions turn into anxiety…

Another topic that’s really important to note is that a mind that’s prone to resist life’s experiences and the sensations of anxiety in the body is also more likely to resist the sensations of sadness, anger and other difficult emotions in the body.  These can then turn into anxiety when we resist them.  For example, let’s say my Dad took away my video games as a kid and I became very angry.  If I don’t know how to express my anger or process it then I am going to be sitting with anger that I am afraid of and which feels very unpleasant.  Here again the mind is going to want to resist these sensations and get away from them so it will employ similar strategies like distraction or obsessive thinking to avoid the sensations of anger. If I now start obsessing and surfing the internet, this will create anxiety on top of the anger.  Now I have no idea of how this cycle of habit loops started.  I just think I am anxious.  

The problem with this is that emotions like anger, sadness and fear are results of the body’s intelligence.  They require a response that’s appropriate for that specific emotion.  If I respond to anger as anxiety then I am going to miss the lesson that anger is trying to teach me.  Maybe one of my boundaries has been crossed.  I will write more in an upcoming blog post about the importance of labeling emotions and why we often label them wrong because we have not noticed their presence until all we feel is anxiety.  

Alternatively, we may label these emotions as anxiety because we don’t really know how different emotions feel in the body.  I have spent more than a decade exploring my inner world, and yet it was only recently that it was pointed out to me by a skillful mentor that I often don’t really recognize the difference between fear and anger as they show up as sensations in my body.  At this point, however, it’s important to just get curious about what we are labeling as “anxiety” and be open to the possibility that it may not have started as anxiety at all.  The anxiety may have been triggered by distraction or trying to avoid feeling difficult emotions like anger or sadness.  

It’s important to practice recognizing emotions because then we can become more aware of the thoughts that come with those emotions.  For example, if we are able to see that we are sad, we are going to be less put off guard by sad thoughts that come into the mind.  We know we are sad so we can expect the flavor of our thoughts to be sad.  When we know how the mind works, we know that we don’t have to resist these thoughts or take them as reality.  Sadness brings about sad thoughts.  Anger brings about angry thoughts.  Fear brings about scary thoughts.  This is just how the mind works.   If we understand that this is just how the mind is, then we can be aware of these different flavors of thoughts as they come into awareness.  We can then choose how we want to relate to them instead of relating to them from our old habitual ways.

Some hidden benefits of anxiety-  “triggering” wholesome rewards

One of the benefits of having anxiety is that it proves to us that we have a really powerful mind body connection.  All sorts of thoughts can trigger anxiety in the body.  It happens so fast and is very unpleasant.  However, it’s not just anxious thoughts that can trigger sensations in the body.  We can also cultivate positive thoughts and use our sensitive nervous systems to our own advantage.  This relates to the compassion and resourcing practices that I have talked about in previous posts.  We can actually choose to place some good thoughts in the mind and see how these positive, soothing thoughts affect how we feel in our bodies.  If we choose to place thoughts of compassion in the mind then we can train ourselves to feel the sensations of compassion in the body.  We can come to notice how these compassion practices actually set up their own habit loops by triggering wholesome behaviors and rewards.  

These are just some of my thoughts as I explore anxiety in my own heart and mind. Feel free to leave some feedback about what resonates with you and what doesn’t . What’s true for you in your own experience?

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