KEY POINTS-

  • When our brain makes threat predictions, it activates our body’s anxiety alarm system.
  • Threat predictions are based on the past, carried forward in memory as fear conditioning and threat beliefs.
  • Our threat bias leads to overestimating risk and underestimating our capacity to cope, causing false alarms.
  • Understanding your threat bias can help you unhook from anxiety and trust yourself to handle hardship.

Part II of the Anxiety Jedi Series. Read Part I here.

Roberto Shumski / Pexels
 
Source: Roberto Shumski / Pexels

Anxiety is an alarm signal that your brain thinks something is amiss. You feel the dark clouds looming, thunder reverberating in your chest and limbs. A possible threat to your physical, social, or psychological well-being has been detected! Your mind narrows to further assess the risk of harm: My partner seems distant—is she falling out of love? No one commented on my product report—maybe they think I did a poor job! What if this pain in my stomach is cancer? Is it safe for my son to surf in sharky waters?

 

We are built to believe that our anxiety alarm signals real danger and then act on it. But while our brain’s threat assessment system is certainly impressive, it’s far from perfect.

When should we trust that feeling?

Getting this right matters. A lot. After all, we don’t want to be rejected, fired, felled by cancer, eaten by sharks. But if it turns out that our brain is overestimating risk, meaning our anxiety is a false (exaggerated) alarm, there are significant costs if we respond in a self-protective manner. Our resulting safety behaviors keep us perpetually stuck in threat-mode: vigilant for negative signs, controlling or avoidant in our relationships, withdrawing instead of engaging our life. The stakes are high.

 

The short answer? Don’t trust that alarm.

Our brain has a powerful, built-in threat bias. Simply knowing this, however, is not enough: it’s incredibly hard to slow down and get perspective when our warning system has lit up our body. But if you can pause and mindfully accept anxiety in the moment (the first skill of the Anxiety Jedi), then you have room to deploy the second skill: evaluating the nature of the threat and your own resources. Having a clear understanding of how and why your brain is forecasting stormy weather can empower you to unhook from the anxiety and choose your actions more wisely. In the process, you may discover you were selling yourself short, and there may be value in taking a risk.

 

Anxiety Arises from a Threat Prediction

lil artsy / Pexels
 
Source: lil artsy / Pexels

This may seem obvious, but let it sink in: when our anxiety alarm is activated, it’s because our brain is predicting that something bad will happen in the future. It’s almost never a signal that harm is actually happening in the present. Rare exceptions are generally physical threats, such as being in the middle of an assault, natural disaster, or heart attack. In moments of clear and present danger, it’s essential that your alarm system is on max, mobilizing your body to fight, flee, or take urgent measures. But most of the time, the system is rumbling at a lower threat level, helping you monitor and prepare for something that might go wrong in the future.

 

So, although anxiety makes danger feel real and immediate, it’s important to recognize there is no saber-toothed tiger in the room. You have time to evaluate. Take a breath.

How Our Brain Learns to Predict Threat

It’s remarkable how our brain makes astonishingly swift threat predictions from very limited information. How exactly does our brain do that? Is there a little team of nerdy scientists in there, furiously analyzing the flow of data from the environment, creating risk versus safety spreadsheets? Well, sort of!

 

A lot of this analysis happens without conscious awareness in your brain’s amygdala (part of the limbic system). Your amygdala is designed to scan your environment for threat cues and, if detected, set off the physiological anxiety alarm, which mobilizes the body for action. Some of these threat signals are known as “unconditioned” stimuli because they are wired in from birth: steep drop-offs, angry expressions, physical pain, and booming noises will automatically activate your internal alarm. But your amygdala is also designed to learn from experience—cues related to past situations in which you were disappointed, embarrassed, hurt, mistreated, traumatized—become “conditioned” threat stimuli that will trigger your anxiety the next time you are in similar situations. Have compassion for your anxiety: the body remembers.

 

Meanwhile, your conscious, thinking, cerebral cortex is creating threat narratives. From a specific experience (feeling humiliated during your 3rd grade class presentation), your mind forms a more general belief (that you will make a fool of yourself in any public speaking situation). These narratives have a protective function: they help us know what to expect, so that we might avoid or prepare for the unpleasantness. We naturally treat our beliefs as if they are “true,” but beliefs are merely mental constructions that help us organize reality and predict outcomes. Our forecasting models are often wrong, and hard to update.

Our Brain’s Built-In Threat Bias

Eddie Jones / Unsplash
 
Source: Eddie Jones / Unsplash

Now you can see why false alarms are so common. From an evolutionary point of view, there is a huge advantage in prioritizing harm avoidance. Even if you’re wrong 99 percent of the time, you are more likely to survive. Better safe than sorry!

Our brain prioritizes consolidating stressful events into memory, which means we remember painful experiences better than neutral or positive ones. This “threat learning” (fear conditioning and narratives) is robust and persists over time, darkening our expectations. Thus, under conditions of uncertainty (which is much of the time!), we tend to assume things are going to go wrong. Research shows that we interpret neutral or ambiguous stimuli (someone not responding to your email) as threatening (“they’re mad at me!”). This threat bias is present as early as infancy: for example, when caregivers are instructed to have a “still” face (non-responsive), their infants become distressed. In intimate relationships, we routinely misjudge our partners.

 

Ways We Overestimate Threat

This wired-in threat bias leads to common cognitive errors. First, we overestimate the likelihood of a negative outcome. We are much more swayed by that vivid story of a flight going down in a remote mountain than by the actual statistical risk of dying in plane crash (1 in 11 million). We remember that crushing time we were demoted or broken up with, and weigh it more heavily than all the times that we weren’t. Harm is always possible, but is it probable?

Sometimes a threat may be likely (such as making a mistake on a report or upsetting our partner), but we overestimate the severity of it (i.e., the actual harm). We need to peel back the onion and keep asking: “what’s so bad about that?” After all, mistakes can be corrected, feelings can be felt and repaired. Our fear of social judgment is a great example of a threat that feels huge but actually carries minimal harm. We all cringe at the thought that others may be criticizing our work, questioning our intentions, judging our appearance. We imagine it as something tangible and permanent—a front page story that never changes. But people have passing judgments all the time: these are merely transient mental events in the beholder’s on-going flow of thoughts, images, memories, and feelings (many of which are positive and most of which are not about you!).

 

We Underestimate Our Capacity to Cope, Learn, and Grow

Ben White / Unsplash
 
Source: Ben White / Unsplash

We not only overpredict threat, we also tend to underestimate our own resources to cope with hardship. Sometimes my clients are so busy trying to avoid negative outcomes they don’t even stop and realize they have handled many difficult situations: they have grieved a parent, survived an operation, changed schools mid-year and made new friends, closed a business and started a new one, repaired a troubled relationship. As author and activist Glennon Doyle wrote, "We can do hard things! In fact, that’s how we learn and become more skillful."

 

This is why facing our fear (what is called “exposure” in therapy) is one of the most effective ways to reduce false alarms and build confidence. When we resist our usual safety behaviors and take risks instead, our brain obtains direct evidence that often disconfirms our amygdala’s dire predictions and strengthens our trust in our own capacity. These “corrective experiences” help update our beliefs about ourselves and others. We discover we are stronger than we think.

 

Can You Be Willing to Have Negative Outcomes?

This leads us to a profound proposition: perhaps we should be willing to have harm happen sometimes, in the service of something bigger. Everything that matters in life comes with a risk of experiencing negative events. To try something new is often to flounder. To go after your dreams is to face failure and disappointment. To pursue a relationship is to risk rejection. To love is to have loss. These are real threats that can and do translate into real pain. The good news is that life becomes less scary when we cultivate the ability to feel difficult feelings and use hardship as an opportunity to improve our work, mend and deepen relationships, and grow in new ways. To fully engage life and get the good stuff, we must have courage and be willing to endure the full spectrum of our experience. This is the topic of the upcoming and final article in the Anxiety Jedi series.

 

Anxiety Jedi Skill #2 Practice: Recognizing False Alarms and Trusting Yourself

These questions may help you revise your risk assessment in light of what matters to you. This “cognitive reappraisal” skill has a strong empirical support, often turning down the alarm. Even when it doesn’t, it can certainly help you resist your safety behaviors (skill #3) and choose your actions according to your values (skill #4).

 
  1. What exactly is the perceived threat driving your anxiety? (Name it! Shine some light on that vague fear!)
  2. How likely is that threat? (Your amygdala may be screaming “high” when the actual risk is low.)
  3. If the threat is likely, how bad would it be if it happened? (Though it may cause some difficult feelings, the actual harm may be low.)
  4. Have you handled similar situations in the past? (Consider your strengths, coping skills, and ways you have grown through hardship).
  5. Is this a risk worth taking in order to keep building a meaningful life?