The ABCs of Anxiety

· July 2, 2017

Anxiety. An emotion that is so well known, felt by everyone and suffered in so many circumstances in life. Anxiety is present every time we feel a possible danger to our survival, but we also invite it to our side during situations that really are not dangerous, if we would just analyze them in an objective manner, although in our eyes they seem to be authentic adversities.

Anxiety accompanies us with the best of intentions, wanting to be our friend, our ally, ready to help us fight against anything that could cause us harm or to help us run if necessary.

What anxiety doesn’t know is that sometimes it can turn into a heavy and bothersome companion and in reality it is a weight we would like to leave behind. So then, we ask, why does anxiety present itself in our life without being invited? Why is it so rude?

In reality, it is our own fault that anxiety shows up from time to time and it has to do with how we interpret situations in our daily lives. Objectively, reality is what it is, but from the perspective of each person it can be viewed differently.

Anxiety by Letters

All emotions have a cognitive or mental component, a physiological or emotional one and a behavioral one, which refers to how we behave when we feel that emotion. Furthermore, emotions tend to appear in determined spacial and temporal context. These are called past situations.

Albert Ellis, father of rational emotive behavior therapy, designed an approach called the “A-B-C Model” in which he broke down emotions into parts. What he was trying to do with this decomposition is analyze all its components, although for him, the root of all emotional problems is found, above all, in the cognitive component. 

The A refers to a situation we have lived, known as dangerous or disruptive. B refers to the cognitive component, namely automatic negative thoughts and irrational beliefs that go through our mind when we find ourselves in a given situation and we interpret or evaluate it.


According to cognitive psychology, these thoughts and beliefs are a product of the training we received during childhood, our early experiences in life and the culture in which we find ourselves.

Lastly, we have C, referred to as the emotional and behavioral component. Namely, what we feel in that situation and how we react to it.

With anxiety, these three components tend to be very distinct, and the treatment is to analyze what situations cause us anxiety and which are those that we need to confront.  On the other hand, there are the thoughts that we should question and change as well as the feeling of anxiety and the way we behave.

The A of Anxiety

The A tends to assume that a situation in life could be more or less dangerous for a person. Although, objectively speaking, the situation does not entail any risk of danger, it is still lived as though it does. Situations that trigger A can include social, physiological, familial, or couples content…

What matters is not the content, but rather that the patient is able to identify it clearly as a situation that in the past caused a state of anxiety.

The B of Anxiety

B are thoughts or cognitions that create an emotional state of anxiety. It looks like A, being personal and subjective to each person. Not all individuals have the same thoughts in the same situations, but rather, each interpretation is its own world and two perspectives of the same situation do not have to be anything alike.

Anxiety produces thoughts that tend to be catastrophic, dramatic and what if questions that always expect the worst possible scenario to occur. Some examples of anxious thoughts can be: What if I mess up on this date? What if I get on the plane and it crashes?

In the majority of cases, these thoughts are exaggerated and unrealistic and are based on the belief that the worst will happen. One strategy to combat these thoughts is to know how to differentiate possibility from probability.

Just because something is possible does not make it probable. It is true that tragedies do occur, but we should be prepared to deal with that uncertainty in life if we don’t want to carry around anxiety at all costs all the time.

The C of Anxiety

Lastly, the C component of anxiety is divided in two parts: the emotional C or the emotions themselves and the behavioral C, that is, how we react in a given situation. The emotion of anxiety is characterized by its physiology and is highly unpleasant for the person experiencing it. Some manifestations of anxiety are: heart palpitations, blurry vision, fainting, shaking, cold sweat, and depersonalization…

At times this can cause people who suffer from these symptoms to be fearful of their own reactions to fear, increasing these symptoms and creating the vicious circle of panic.

What patients need to understand is that these manifestations are designed to help us escape dangerous situations that threaten our lives. Thus, we shouldn’t fear them, but rather the complete opposite.

The typical behavioral C of anxiety is called the fight or flight response. When faced with the belief that we have to do something to survive we have two roads to choose from: to fight or flee.

This response is very important in situations of real danger, but it puts us in psychological turmoil when no danger exists, because it is the product of our own thoughts or irrational B’s.

The fight or flight response is the sustenance that ensures the survival of anxiety. It does not allow us to tolerate the emotion nor allow the intensity of such to decline naturally. Furthermore, we cannot cognitively prove that our thoughts are based on reality or not.

Escaping the situation reaffirms that what we were thinking of the situation was true, so that in the future we will react the same way. So the vicious circle of anxiety is complete, it is settled into our lives as a constant companion without an expiration date until we start to face it head on.