Imagine yourself walking down an alleyway at night. All of a sudden, a masked person wearing a red t-shirt approaches you with a gun. Thankfully, you’re able to get away safely but at that moment you felt immense fear, discomfort, and anxiety. A month later, you walk down a different alleyway on your way home and from a distance you see a new person wearing a red t-shirt. The once neutral stimulus, or trivial attribute, of someone wearing a red t-shirt now, incites the same fear, discomfort, and anxiety because it was associated with something life-threatening or aversive. This is the foundation of classical conditioning.
What is Classical Conditioning?
Classical conditioning was originally demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov through experimentally proving that conditions surrounding stimuli can trigger behavioral responses. In Pavlov’s experiments, the relationship between an unconditioned stimulus and unconditioned response was shown. When a dog was given food (unconditioned stimulus) this led them to salivate in response (unconditioned response). This was not something learned, it was simply a reflex. As experimentation continued, Pavlov discovered pairing a bell, a previously neutral stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus of food led to the same response of drooling that food alone did. Eventually, when the dog heard the ringing bell alone, he immediately salivated. Through the strategic pairing of a specific stimulus, he discovered that a response could be learned or conditioned without the presence of the original stimulus.
You may be thinking, what does this have to do with anxiety?
When taking a closer look, anxiety is maintained through the principles of classical conditioning. In the example above, before the incident in the alleyway, someone wearing a red t-shirt may not have evoked any feelings of anxiety making it a neutral stimulus. However, after someone wearing a red t-shirt was paired with the danger of someone threatening your life with a gun, the response to anyone wearing a red t-shirt now is conditioned to elicit the same anxiety of encountering a gunman.
Let’s examine another way classical conditioning shapes our common anxieties. Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is another example of conditioned anxiety. We are not innately born fearing spiders, making it a neutral stimulus, much like the bell in Pavlov’s example. By pairing the bell with the sight of food, this caused the dog to salivate. This is similarly done with the fear of spiders. As the spider is paired with irrational thoughts of being bitten and killed, this elicits the same anxiety of something that may threaten your life. This anxiety now continues because the irrational thought is connected to the sight of spiders.
Anxiety is a learned process and theoretically, can be associated with many stimuli that may or may not have an imminent threat attached to them. This is the way we navigate through potentially dangerous situations however anxiety may make us a little too careful.
How does avoidance feed anxiety?
Avoiding scenarios that bring discomfort is our instinct. However, this makes the anxiety worse. By avoiding, we are eliminating an aversive stimulus. When we repeatedly avoid the situation that provokes anxiety, the stimuli that has been conditioned is strengthened. By breaking the association between the unconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus, desensitization can occur and the conditioned stimulus can eventually return to its neutral state.
Understanding how our anxiety is formed is the first step in breaking free from it. In next month’s blog, we will describe practical solutions to implement on your own. Come back for more.
About the Author: Rudairo Segbeaya is a Behavior Therapist and Pacific CBT’s Office Manager. Rudairo received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of San Francisco and is currently undertaking a Master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University.