Where does anxiety – good and bad – come from?

In last week’s blog I wrote about bad anxiety. Bad anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the world today. Its impact on us can range from being a silent thrum under the surface of our daily lives to being totally debilitating.

The question is where does anxiety – good and bad – come from?

And the answer is …..

The uncomfortable feeling that is anxiety is generated by our internal risk management process (part of our natural survival system). The process enables us to identify and deal with risks (perceived future threats) to our physical and/or emotional wellbeing.

A highly effective and reliable process

Our risk management process is highly effective and reliable. It’s been in development for hundreds of thousands of years. Its effectiveness is demonstrated by the fact humanity has survived where many other species have become extinct.

Why an understanding of our innate risk management process is essential to avoiding bad anxiety

With an understanding of how your internal risk management process operates you can begin to explore how well it’s functioning, and can make any necessary adjustments, so you avoid unnecessary, unhelpful (bad) anxiety. Your wellbeing will improve, and you will enjoy life more.

Our Innate Risk Management Process

Here are the steps in our innate risk management process.

Step 1: Stimulus – Worry and Imagination

It’s estimated we have some 60,000 plus thoughts every day. Most of these thoughts are ‘automatic’, they just pop into our heads. Very often we’re not even aware we’re experiencing them. Many of these thoughts take the form of worries. These worries, and the imagined future scenarios they trigger, are the inputs into our risk management process.

We use our imagination to project ourselves into the future in an attempt to predict the consequences of a future situation that may never occur. Sometimes our brain gets the prediction right but, most of the time it doesn’t, and we waste a lot of energy and time imagining risk scenarios that will never occur.

Step 2: Threat Detection

Our emotional brain assesses whether the worry or imagined future scenario represents a threat to our wellbeing. If the answer is ‘yes’ then our brain arouses the emotion fear.

Step 3: Risk Appraisal

A moment after our emotional brain has done its threat detection, our ‘thinking brain’, gets to process the worry and/or imagined future scenario. It does two things: 1) it determines if the emotional brain got its threat detection correct and 2) it seeks to identify risks not identified by the emotional brain, perhaps because the experience we’re having is new to us, or we’ve had the experience before, but it wasn’t tagged as a threat.

Step 4: Emotions created

“Emotions that seem to happen to you, are made by you.” ~ Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Psychologist and neuroscientist, Feldman Barrett research suggests emotions are a response to the meaning our brain attributes to a situation. They are complex neurochemical constructions built in the moment, as you need them and are recipes for what response our sympathetic nervous system should activate. Fear is created in response to danger and triggers the Threat Response. Excitement is created in response to challenges and triggers the Challenge Response.

Step 5: Sympathetic Nervous System Activation

Our autonomic nervous system has two branches the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). One way of thinking of these two sub-systems is that the SNS is the accelerator pedal (it gets us moving) and the PNS is the brake pedal (it slows us down and puts us into neutral). The SNS can trigger many responses, of which the Threat Response (aka the “Stress Response’/’Fight or Flight Response’) is just one. When the Threat Response is activated, our body immediately begins to adapt to be able to either fight off the threat/risk or escape from it.

Step 6: State – Acute Anxiety

Acute anxiety is experienced as a complex blend of uncomfortable feelings (physiological sensations and emotions). It is a red flag from our unconscious that it has noticed or is anticipating trouble ahead and something needs our attention. Consciously we may know what the risk is, or we may have no idea what the risk is, we just sense there’s a risk out there. The feeling is intense enough not to be ignored, but not intense enough to be debilitating.

Acute anxiety is a temporary state of being – once we have satisfactorily mitigated the risk, or it no longer exists, the anxiety related to that risk dissipates.

Step 7: Behaviour

So, anxiety is a call to action to mitigate a perceived risk. Its job is to keep bugging you, until you pay attention and start taking action. The benefits of anxiety are lost when we interpret it as a stop signal – a red light – rather than an amber (caution) light. When that happens, we can be discouraged from taking any action at all, or as is often the case, we may engage in maladaptive behaviours such as avoidance behaviours, escape behaviours and safety behaviours, that only serve to reinforce our perception of the particular risk and gradually disrupt our ability to live normal lives.

Intervening in your risk management process to reduce your anxiety

I mentioned at the start of this article that with an understanding of how our innate risk management process operates we can explore how well it is functioning and make any necessary adjustments with the aim of avoiding unnecessary, unhelpful anxiety. The good thing is there are many interventions we can make at each step in the process. Many of these you can make yourself, but some are best undertaken with the help of an anxiety solutions coach or anxiety therapist.


You now understand how and where your anxiety comes from. Anxiety isn’t something that’s done to us, it’s an experience we create ourselves as a product of our incredible, inborn risk management process. The fact that we create our experience of anxiety is significant because it means, we can also stop experiencing unnecessary, unhelpful, and potentially harmful anxiety.

Is your risk management process in need of a tune up?

If you are suffering with anxiety or stress and want rapid long-lasting relief, let’s have a conversation to explore how I can help you. To schedule your no obligation 15-to-30-minute conversation with me via ZOOM just lick HERE. Alternatively, you can call/text me on 021 056 8389.

~ Tony

I’m on a mission to help as many people as possible enjoy lives free of unnecessary stress and anxiety. If you’d like my help, or you know someone who would benefit, call/text me today on 021 056 8389 or email tony@tycoaching.nz