Anxiety and panic are signals that something is amiss and needs attention
Though they cause discomfort, anxiety and panic are more than just emotional experiences to be endured and tolerated. Anxiety is a signal that activates a certain amount of energy toward action (think of athletes feeling nervous in the locker room before the big game who, then, bring that energy to their actions on the field). In its rawest form, anxiety is one of the ways that our nervous system controls the actions of our body.
Panic (acute, urgent anxiety) and more generalized anxiety are signals of danger that something is amiss and needs urgent attention and often action. In this way, they are not just normal functions of our bodies–they are essential.
There are two forms of action-thought: primary process and secondary process
There are two forms of action-thought, which biologists call, primary process and secondary process. Primary process includes autonomic actions, which are the more basic or “primitive” functions. Less sophisticated animals and all other organisms operate mostly or entirely on primary process. For example, a snake receives a signal of danger like a bird’s shadow honing down on it. Immediately, without any sophisticated “higher” thought, the snake think-acts itself to safety. Later, it sees a small rodent and think-acts itself toward the animal, attempting to capture it in its jaws. While, of course, thought is happening, the snake doesn’t really “think about it.” It’s not self-reflexive; it isn’t slowing down to weigh options. Primary process thoughts and actions are oriented toward safety and survival. Primary process is embodied, automatic, or close to it.
On the other hand, secondary process is a higher order of thinking. It isn’t unique to humans, but certainly, humans have far more capacity for secondary process thinking than any other organisms. Humans can and do reflect before acting. Some of our goals demand it such as planning, love, values-driven actions, and many aspects of play.
Granted, one form of action isn’t good or bad. Developing as humans means making use of both.
Anxiety’s signal can be too intense, at the wrong time, or misread
Part of secondary process thinking-acting is overriding the signals of primary process thinking-acting. This process largely happens without thought or intervention.
However, while anxiety can be a crucial signal that something needs immediate action, it can also be too intense, at the wrong time, or not sufficiently balanced with more sophisticated, tempering, value-driven modes of operating (secondary process). This is one area where many people with anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder experience difficulty. So much so that therapy for anxiety disorders can be needed to help.
It’s also the case that anxiety can be doing its job—signaling danger—but we can either be failing to read the signal or misreading it entirely. Paranoia is a good example: We find ourselves wrought with anxious suspicion that we’re going to lose our job and therefore, bring vigilance and suspicions to work. In reality, we’re over-indexed on harsh feedback from a boss. Sadly, misunderstood anxiety can make an actual situation worse. In this example, the anxiety is real and a signal of actual danger. But the danger is likely in the past, an unresolved anxiety about a very real danger that may go back to childhood.
A therapist’s capacity for secondary process thinking can be used to make sense of muddled anxiety signals
Therapy helps us slow down and look at anxiety, a signal that is often too strong to truly connect with. In a sense, the therapist uses their capacity for secondary process thinking to help make sense of the intense, often muddled signals.
I often think of the analogy of a sunburn here: You fall asleep at the beach and burn your back. The next day, a buddy greets you with a bit too much enthusiasm and you recoil in pain. What part of the pain came from the sunburn and what part came from the smack on the back? A therapist, by virtue of not being wired into your anxiety, can help discern this. They can direct the correct attention to the current-day challenge that may very well need attention while also directing action to the historical matter that’s been evoked by the current stressors.