DRMacIver's Notebook

How I fix anxiety triggers

How I fix anxiety triggers

This is a sketch of the skillset I use to deal with anxiety. It works well when:

  1. Anxiety is at a level that I can deal with.
  2. It is anxiety about something.
  3. You are me.

For example:

Basic Procedure

The procedure is very simple:

  1. Notice that a thing is triggering anxiety.
  2. Figure out why it's triggering anxiety.
  3. Ask if the current situation is actually one I need to be anxious about.
    • If yes, keep being anxious, taking appropriate steps to increase your safety.
    • If no, stop being anxious, and also be less anxious in similar situations in future.

All three of these are very simple but they are not easy and require developing some foundational skills that I'll talk about at the end.

Does it work? In my experience, pretty reliably, as long as you can actually work through the procedure (which can be both intellectually and emotionally difficult).

Why does this work?

The basic philosophical premises of this are:

  1. Anxiety is not in and of itself bad. Anxiety is your reaction to being in a dangerous situation, making you aware of it so that you can be prepared. It is good to be aware of when you are in a dangerous situation.
  2. Your brain does not do a perfectly rational threat assessment of the situation, it learns simple pattern matching rules.
  3. When a rule is active you can change it by better understanding the situation and gently guiding yourself towards understanding why it doesn't apply.

(3) is the basic idea behind coherence therapy: You can retrain emotions when they are triggered.

I've previously explained the idea that your bundle of emotional reactions are a messy complex system that you can debug and refactor in the previous three posts:

What doesn't work

The main thing that people try to do with anxiety is suppress it. This doesn't work, and probably makes your anxiety worse, for several reasons:

Unfortunately because we've got into the habit of treating anxiety itself as the problem, this is the natural thing to do. My instinct is that you are better off palliating to deal with the anxious situation or avoiding it entirely rather than trying to suppress it.

Foundational Skills

Although the procedure is simple, it requires some relatively difficult foundational skills:

I talked about some of these in A Crash Course in Having Feelings. I don't necessarily have good advice beyond that post on how to develop these skills, but some books that I found helpful in learning about each of these are:

But to be honest I think with all of these the real way to get good at them is just to practice. Of these I'd most strongly recommend "A Crash Course in Having Feelings", "Focusing", and MJB's post on trauma. The others were important to my development, but I read a lot of books so that's relatively cheap for me, and was only really a way to get started. The best thing for actually developing these skills was to use them in practice.