Anxiety is a reaction that prepares us to face danger. When we perceive that we are at risk, an automatic reaction is triggered that prepares us for fight or flight. Fear is the first thing we experience when faced with this threat and anxiety appears immediately afterwards, when our thinking becomes operational.
In these situations, anxiety is not negative since it speeds up our thinking so that we can prepare to better deal with what could happen. In fact, anxiety is projected precisely into the future. It pushes us to quickly evaluate all possible alternatives to develop an emergency plan.
The problem arises when anxiety does not leave us. When we react with anxious apprehension to everything, so that the world ends up becoming a hostile and dangerous place before our eyes.
What is anxious apprehension exactly?
Apprehension is one of the most distinctive signs of anxiety along with pathological worry. Pathological worry involves making catastrophic predictions about events that have a low probability of occurring, such as imagining that a meteorite could hit us. This type of thinking overestimates the probability of risk, keeping us in a permanent state of alert.
Anxiety worsens when we jump from one fear to another, imagining increasingly catastrophic scenarios, which leads to meta-worry; That is, we are worried about being worried. Then we begin to think that worries are uncontrollable and that we can go crazy.
Anxious apprehension is similar. Psychologist David H. Barlow described it as a “Future-oriented state of mind in which the individual prepares to face approaching negative events. This state is associated with elevated negative affect, chronic overarousal, feelings of unpredictability and uncontrollability, and attention focused on signs of threat or danger.”
Therefore, anxious apprehension are the feelings that accompany that pathological worry. It is a feeling of walking on breaking glass or the perception that something negative is about to happen at any moment. The worst thing is that in many cases it is a diffuse sensation that becomes a second skin for people who suffer from an anxiety disorder, who end up seeing the world through that apprehension.
As with catastrophic thinking, another distinctive characteristic of anxious apprehension is its irrationality since it is not based on an objective potential danger but rather on a generalized fear.
Do you suffer from anxious apprehension or anxious arousal?
Virtually all of us have experienced anxiety at some point, whether in the face of an important exam, a job interview, or a life change. However, anxiety does not manifest itself in the same way, so it is important to identify what pattern we usually follow.
Recently, neuroscientists at the University of Delaware discovered that the different ways in which anxiety manifests trigger different patterns of brain activation. Thus, they found that while anxious arousal implies a state of vigilance and physical anxiety, anxious apprehension is more related to worry about the future.
Anxious apprehension is therefore a more cognitive form of anxiety, characterized by persistent worry about the future, catastrophic ruminative thinking, and increased inward focus. For this reason, apprehensive persons tend to worry a lot and show a tendency to introspect.
On the other hand, anxious arousal is a more physical state turned outward that is characterized by symptoms such as breathing difficulties, palpitations, and a state of hypervigilance. Those who suffer from this form of anxiety constantly scan their environment for threats, even when they are in a safe place. Those who suffer from anxious apprehension turn these threats over and over in their minds.
The trap that your own mind sets for you
Neuroscientists at the University of Illinois found that high levels of anxious apprehension affect our performance. As apprehension increases, anxiety recruits more areas of the brain generating worry, which affects our attention and thinking, preventing us from adaptively solving the problem.
That means that anxious apprehension plunges us into a vicious cycle. The more we worry, the less we can think clearly and the harder it will be to solve the problem. In this way, the problem is likely to worsen, in turn generating more worry and apprehension.
The good news is that the simple fact of being aware of that loop already helps us get out of the clutches of apprehension.
Overcoming apprehension due to cognitive defusion
In acceptance and commitment therapy, anxiety is conceived as an experiential avoidance disorder that arises or is aggravated when we focus on eliminating that apprehension instead of what causes it. In practice, we start from an erroneous assumption: we want to eliminate anxiety, ignoring its cause.
The problem is that in this way we are likely to end up avoiding doing many things, limiting our lives to an increasingly smaller space, just to avoid feeling anxiety. However, it has been proven that this avoidance response only reinforces anxious apprehension because it confirms to our brain that it was right to worry.
To free ourselves from anxious apprehension we must understand that thoughts can generate the same emotional and physiological reaction as aversive stimuli (such as public speaking or being in a crowd). Without realizing it, we suffer from what is known as thought fusion, a common problem in anxiety that consists of assuming that the catastrophic ideas that cross our mind are a reality.
Catastrophic thoughts produce unpleasant sensations and, when these become automated and become an unconscious pattern, we only perceive the sensations they trigger, which is precisely that feeling of diffuse apprehension. For example, when we think about something we fear, such as being in a small enclosed space, we imagine the anxiety it will cause us. If we react to what we think, to that terrible anxiety that we imagine, and not to what we are really experiencing in the present, a cognitive fusion occurs.
Therefore, we need to carry out a process of defusion of that thought, which implies classifying it as a simple “thought” and not as an unquestionable reality. We must question this apprehension because it is not a response to a threatening reality but to a dysfunctional thought pattern.
Defusion techniques consist of feeling that apprehension, but blocking the impulse it generates to break the automatism. To follow it we must identify the automatic reactions that this apprehension generates, be aware of them and take note of their existence, but without reacting. It can help us to sing our worries or mention them out loud with a funny tone of voice, since this way we reduce their emotional impact and we can assume a psychological distance from our own thoughts.
It’s hard? Of course. We have spent years merging with our thoughts, so it is not something we can achieve overnight. However, with patience and perseverance we can get rid of that anxious apprehension.
Burdwood, E. N. et. Al. (2016) Resting-State Functional Connectivity Differentiates Anxious Apprehension and Anxious Arousal. Psychophysiology; 53(10): 1451–1459.
Levin, R. et. Al. (2015) Depression and Anxious Apprehension Distinguish Frontocingulate Cortical Activity during Top-Down Attentional Control. J Abnorm Psychol; 120(2): 272–285.
Barlow, D. H. (2002) Anxiety and its disorders. Nueva York: Guilford Press.