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Content vs. Process Anxiety, and How Knowing the Difference Can Help You Manage Anxiety

If you’re struggling with anxiety and aren’t sure how to manage it, you’re in the right place! As a clinical psychologist who regularly works with clients dealing with anxiety, I know that having an understanding of what our brains are doing during anxiety can have a huge impact on our ability to manage anxiety overall, and really, to make it feel less scary and overwhelming.

Content Anxiety

First, let’s talk about Content Anxiety. This is the kind of anxiety that is generally tied to a specific problem or situation, and mostly resolves when the situation resolves. Let’s say you have a job interview on Tuesday at 1pm. You might be understandably anxious about it leading up to the interview. But by the time it’s over on Tuesday afternoon, probably a lot of that anxiety will have resolved. That’s because the interview is a specific event at a specific time. Once it’s over, you might be thinking about next steps, or wondering how you performed. But chances are, you’re no longer wondering things like “what are they going to ask me?” “Am I going to be prepared enough?” because now, you have the answers to those questions now.

We all deal with Content Anxiety at times. And generally, Content Anxiety doesn’t make us worry long-term. We have a problem, we deal with it, it resolves, and the anxiety subsides.

Process Anxiety

So then, what is Process Anxiety? Process Anxiety is not connected to a specific event at a specific time. It’s more vague, even existential. Think about some of the major issues going on in the United States and around the world in 2022. Ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation and rising prices, climate change and natural disasters, uncertainty in the economy and housing market, ongoing political tensions… so many. Do we have a specific date of when any of these things will end? Nope. Do we even know exactly when some of these issues started? No, not really. Our worry about these things are prime examples of Process Anxiety.

When we’re worried about things, and we don’t know when they’re going to happen, or perhaps when they’re going to end, there’s not really a problem we can solve here, is there? It’s not like Content Anxiety, where you have a concrete problem or situation that can be resolved. Many of the solutions to these problems are in the future, where we can’t get to them. Other times, what we’re worried about is actually more like regret or ruminating. In this case, the problem is also unreachable, because now it’s in the past. And a lot of this stuff is completely out of our control.

This is why anxiety often feels really overwhelming and never-ending. Because we can’t control the outcomes here, we end up in this spiral of anxiety that has nowhere to go. But when it comes to Process Anxiety… what we think is the problem isn’t the problem. The real problem is the anxiety itself. We can’t address the existential problem that’s happening, because we can’t control the past or the future. The only thing we can control here is how we deal with the anxiety we’re experiencing.

Using RAIN to Address Process Anxiety

One of my favorite tips for beginning to manage anxiety is an acronym called RAIN. RAIN stands for:

R- recognize

A- allow

I- investigate

N- nurture

As soon as you realize that what you’re experiencing is Process Anxiety, and it’s time to address it, you’ve accomplished the R!

The A is probably the simplest, and yet most difficult, part of RAIN. Allow means exactly what it sounds like. You have to allow the anxiety to be there. Sometimes, anxiety tricks us into thinking that it will completely consume us if we don’t push it away. But this isn’t true! Anxiety is a biological response in your body that is often connected to emotions like worry. The anxiousness can be frustrating and unpleasant, but it can also just be there without controlling you.

Even if you experience the worst case scenario, a panic attack, it will not kill you. I don’t mean that facetiously or sarcastically. Panic attacks can feel just like heart attacks! I’ve experienced panic attacks and I know they’re awful. But most panic attacks last less than 20 minutes. Your body literally can’t get worse than that. So what goes up, must come down. The physical feelings of panic will start to go down after several minutes, because there’s no other direction for them to go. It’s kind of like Anxiety Gravity.

Once you’ve allowed yourself to sit with the anxiety and let it gradually start to have less control over you, you’re ready to move onto the I.

The I for Investigate is when we start to think about where the anxiety is really coming from. Have you ever gotten incredibly anxious over something you know isn’t that bad, but you just can’t seem to stop it? That’s actually pretty common, and it’s exactly why we go through the Investigate step. If you know the surface level thing isn’t that bad, and yet here you are with anxiety, it’s probably because the surface level thing isn’t the real thing.

Let’s say that you’re anxious because you texted your partner about something and you received the dreaded response….. “k.” And now your mind is spiraling all over the place… is he mad at me? Is he ok? Maybe he’s really busy right now… or maybe he’s ignoring me on purpose. Maybe he is mad at me. Why is he mad? What did I do wrong? Oh no…what if he’s at someone’s house cheating on me? Or maybe he’s getting fired from his job and we won’t be able to pay rent next month. Or maybe …. Or maybe….

Right? Phew, that escalated quickly. But so many of us have been there. Imagine that you have given yourself time to allow this anxiety, and now you’re ready to investigate this anxiety response.

First, is his confirmation response of “k” actually inappropriate at face value? No, it’s not? It’s not actually a big deal? Ok, let’s start there. When you hear that response, “k,” what’s really the fear underneath that? Using the example above, I might guess it’s about either being ignored, or a deeper fear of something being very wrong. Go another layer deeper. Have there been times in your life when you experienced being ignored or abandoned in a very legitimate way? If so, that was probably incredibly painful. Same thing if you’ve been cheated on before, or you’ve been thrown into a financial crisis before, or you’ve had horrible, relationship-ending fights before. All of those things are legitimately terrible…

And, my friend, none of them are necessarily what is happening right now. There is no evidence for any of that stuff. This is Process Anxiety at work.

Investigate is about recognizing what you’re truly anxious about (one of those terrible scenarios), so that you can give yourself some compassion, rather than react as if one of those terrible things is what is actually happening (which could very well make the situation worse).

The N, for Nurture, is about taking care of yourself. What could you do, in this moment, to soothe your body and mind? Nurture is all about finding simple coping skills to help yourself relax and feel a little bit better.

Nurture doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to solve the content problem. Because remember, we’re in Process Anxiety. The situation you’re anxious about isn’t the problem. Anxiety is the problem. And there are absolutely things you can do to help relieve some of the anxiety. That is solving the actual problem, and you have control over that!

Some of my favorite nurturing skills are using my 5 senses with things that are pleasant, taking a hot bath, doing some deep breathing, going for a walk (or really any intentional movement), or calling a friend. These things can be very simple. The only goal is to help your body feel a little better.

Next Steps

If it sounds like RAIN could be helpful for you, I’d encourage you to try it the next time you notice Process Anxiety! Sometimes, just understanding the difference between Content and Process Anxiety can really help the anxiety feel more manageable. We have more resources on Anxiety here if you’d like to learn more.

And if you realize that you’d like to work on anxiety more thoroughly, therapy could be a great next step. The therapists at North Berkeley Counseling are all licensed psychologists trained in anxiety therapy techniques that can be incredibly helpful. We offer CBT in Berkeley, California, and throughout California, Hawaii, Virginia, and Florida online.


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