Our efforts to figure out or problem solve our safety, to reduce our anxiety, is a rational and natural response (flight-fight response). And it’s completely automatic!
So, the question arises, why can’t we reduce our experience of threat or “dial back” our level of anxiety given how hard we are trying? Certainly, situational factors play a role; that is, we are in the midst of a true crisis. However, there is something going on beyond the crisis we all face.
All of our thoughts about threat, health, and safety are completely involuntary. Thoughts and related feelings simply arrive, front and center. We then attempt to place our psychological reactions under voluntary control. We attempt to alter our thoughts, change the content of thoughts, and change the frequency and duration of thoughts.
We might try to think positive thoughts to counter or balance negative thoughts. Or, we might try to apply the evidence for/evidence against method in order to evaluate the truth of our thoughts. What is interesting is that we are really good at applying these techniques. We are skilled at focusing on “silver linings” or the “bright side,” and we are also skilled at finding solid evidence that challenges our negative predictions.
The fact is problem-solving not only fails to decrease our sense of threat, but it actually increases our experience of threat. Why? Because we think via symbolic relations, not conditioned associations – and we have the unique ability to constantly create complex networks of relations. Our experience of threat, unlike non-language-able animals, is not based only on direct experience (conditioning). We have the amazing, and sometimes very problematic, ability to imagine a threatening event in the future and experience it the “now.”
Early on in life, we learn through interaction (language training) with our parents to create symbolic or verbal relations via specific “frames:” coordination (sameness/similarity); comparison (more-less/better-worse); distinction/opposition (different from/opposite of); conditional (cause effect/if then ); spatial (near-far/front back ); temporal (before after) and; deictic (I-you/here-there/now-then).
Initially, we learn to relate objects in our environment in terms of non-arbitrary attributes of “sameness/similarity,” “more-less/better-worse,” or “different from/opposite of.” Once we learn this skill, we can then “frame” people, situations/events, and eventually our thoughts and feelings. For example, we start with the shape of a circular object is different from a square object (and vice versa) and move to abstract/arbitrary relations such as “I am better than my sister.” Once a frame is “in place,” it cannot be “deleted” or “unlearned.”
What does relational framing have to do with our inability to get rid of anxiety (or any unwanted internal experience)? This is how it works: healthy and unhealthy or safety and danger are bidirectionally related through the frame of distinction/opposition. Healthy only makes sense in relation to unhealthy and safety only makes sense in relation to danger or threat.
We simply cannot think one without thinking the other. If you try to think “I am safe from COVID 19,” you automatically cue thoughts of danger, as they are bidirectional (safer than/more dangerous than). Put it another way, you can only measure your degree of safety though a comparison with thoughts of danger.
Additionally, we have the ability to relate anything to anything. Through conditional framing (if-then) and frames of coordination (same as), for example, any object, person, or situation can be related to COVID 19 danger despite the fact that we have no direct experience of the danger we are thinking about. Just look around the house and see the ways in which objects/people are now related to threat and danger.
If we cannot delete “frames of danger,” which simply means that we cannot suppress or modify distressing thoughts, does this mean that we are doomed to remain in states of high anxiety. No, definitely not. In my next blog, I will take you through an alternative to thought suppression or control offered by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). We will move into an introduction of six interrelated skills that help us modify our relationship to our thoughts, feelings, memories, and sensations: acceptance, defusion, present-moment-awareness, self-as-context, values, and committed action.