My current model of Anxiety

[epistemic status: untested first draft model

Part of my Psychological Principles of Productivity series]

This is a brief post on my current working model of what “anxiety” is. (More specifically, this is my current model of what’s going on when I experience a state characterized by high energy, distraction, and a kind of “jittery-ness”/ agitation. I think other people may use the handle “anxiety” for other different states.)

I came up with this a few weeks ago, durring that period of anxiety and procrastination. (It was at least partial inspired by my reading a draft of Kaj’s recent post on IFS. I don’t usually have “pain” as an element of my psychological theorizing.)

The model

Basically, the state that I’m calling anxiety is characterized by two responses moving “perpendicular” to each other: increased physiological arousal, mobilizing for action, and a flinch response redirecting attention to decrease pain.

Here’s the causal diagram:



The parts of the model

It starts with some fear or belief about the state of the world. Specially, this fear is an alief about an outcome that 1) would be bad and 2) is uncertain.

For instance:

  • Maybe I’ve waited too late to start, and I won’t be able to get the paper in by the deadline.
  • Maybe this workshop won’t be good and I’m going to make a fool of myself.
  • Maybe this post doesn’t make as much sense as I thought.

(I’m not sure about this, but I think that the uncertainty is crucial. At least in my experience, at least some of the time, if there’s certainty about the bad outcome, my resources are mobilized to deal with it. This “mobilization and action” has an intensity to it, but it isn’t anxiety.)

This fear is painful, insofar as it represents the possibility of something bad happening to you or your goals.

The fear triggers physiological arousal, or SNS activation. You become “energized”. This is part of your mind getting you ready to act, activating the fight-or-flight response, to deal with the possible bad-thing.

(Note: I originally drew the diagram with the pain causing the arousal. My current guess is that it makes more sense to talk about the fear causing the arousal directly. Pain doesn’t trigger fight-or-flight responses (think about being stabbed, or having a stomach ache). It’s when their’s danger, but not certain harm, that we get ready to move.)

However, because the fear includes pain, there are other parts of the mind that have a flinch response. There’s a sub-verbal reflex away from the painful fear-thought.

In particular, there’s often an urge towards distraction. Distractions like…

  • Flipping to facebook
  • Flipping to LessWrong
  • Flipping to Youtube
  • Flipping to [webcomic of your choice]
  • Flipping over to look at your finances
  • Going to get something to eat
  • Going to the bathroom
  • Walking around “thinking about something”

This is often accompanied by rationalization thought, that is justifying the distraction behavior to yourself.

So we end up with the fear causing both high levels of physiological SNS activation, and distraction behaviors.


The distraction-seeking is what gives rise to the “reactivity” (I should write about this sometime) of anxiety, and the heightened SNS gives rise to the jittery “high energy” of anxiety.

Of course, these responses work at cross purposes: the SNS energy is mobilizing for action, (and will be released when action has been taken and the situation is improved) and and the flinch is trying not to think the bad possibility.

I think the heightened physiological arousal might be part of why  anxiety is hard to dialogue with. Doing focusing requires (? Is helped by?) calm and relaxation.

I think this might also explain a phenomenon that I’ve observed in myself: both watching TV and masturbating defuse anxiety. (That is, I can be highly anxious and unproductive, but if if I watch youtube clips for and hour and a half, or masturbate, I’ll feel more settled and able to focus afterwards).

This might be because both of these activities can grab my attention so that I loose track of the originating fear thought, but I don’t think that’s right. I think that these activities just defuse the heightened SNS, which clears space so that I can orient on making progress.

This suggests that any activity that reduces my SNS activation will be similarly effective. That matches my experience (exercise, for instance, is a standard excellent response to anxiety), but I’ll want to play with modulating my physiological arousal a bit and see.

Note for application

In case this isn’t obvious from the post, this model suggests that you want to learn to notice your flinches and (the easier one) your distraction behaviors, so that they can be triggers for self-dialogue. If you’re looking to increase your productivity, this is one of the huge improvements that is on the table for many people. (I’ll maybe say more about this sometime.)

5 thoughts on “My current model of Anxiety

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