The following is a portion of an article by Dr. Tracy Foose, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She is the director of Adult Psychotherapy Clinics and serves as co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Program at UCSF with a clinical focus on general anxiety disorder, panic and social anxiety.
We’ve cast anxiety as our modern plague. But this is so very unfair. For all it’s torment, fear is a marvelous beast. The brain structures that join forces to produce it are highly preserved across species, indicating that fear is a pretty handy response to threat whether you’re a mouse or a venture capitalist. In a state of heightened mental and bodily awareness, time slows down, breathing accelerates, muscles fill with oxygenated blood and our brains absorb and integrate information in an appallingly efficient form of learning called fear conditioning.
Anxiety is fear with the added element of anticipation, and one major feature of an anxiety disorder is a torturous, anticipatory fear of fear. This fear of fear is what clinicians who treat anxiety disorders call “meta-emotion” – how we feel about our feelings. Humans are complicated. We can feel mad about feeling sad, we can feel anxious about feeling anxious. With or without anxiety disorder, we all experience this phenomenon. I can think back to many a sweaty, fluorescent classroom moment when I clutched a No. 2 pencil in my hand and thought, “I’m terrified that my anxiety’s going to make me choke.” Boom. Meta-emotion. But meta-emotion can work in our favor. Sports psychologists know that reframing anxiety as a state of mind signifying readiness for challenge yields better physical performance than attempting to reduce athletes’ anxiety. Recent studies of test-taking anxiety suggest that a shift from extinguishing to harnessing anxiety may offer advantage in settings of heightened cognitive challenge, as well.
We might even embrace our misunderstood Achilles’ heel if we judge anxiety on it’s own merits. Trait anxiety associates with some wonderfully adaptive stuff. Highly conscientious, honest, detail oriented, performance driven, socially responsible, self-controlled: These are qualities I bear witness to in my patients. It behooves us to think better of our anxiety, our individual and collective anxiety, and relinquish our fear of fear….. San Francisco Chronicle 2/22/13