When Anxiety Triggers Pop Up … But You Still Have Choices

Anxiety triggers and what to do when triggered are hot topics in our community. We all want to know what to do when we get triggered and find ourselves consumed by that flash of fear that can be so hard to describe and so hard to endure. Many wind up stuck, glued to the insistence that surrender, acceptance, floating, or choosing to willfully tolerate that experience is unthinkable and impossible.

They wind up trapped a loop … arguing against themselves and demanding more steps, techniques, and tricks for HOW to do a think they believe impossible to do.

Sometimes the toughest opponent we have in anxiety recovery is the belief we can’t outrun. This episode challenges you to question the certainties that have defined your battle with anxiety. Is the intensity of our emotions a reliable compass? Is our self-knowledge as accurate as we believe? We’ll explore the potential for a fleeting moment of power even amidst the storm of fear, and how reassessing our core beliefs can unlock new possibilities.

The thought that what was once unthinkable can become thinkable, what felt impossible can indeed become possible. Reflect on the resilience hidden in your stories and perceptions as we navigate through the complexities of anxiety together.

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Choice point is a thing we see discussed in lots of places in mental health, wellness, and personal development.  In our context, we are going to draw our inspiration from the paradoxical intention intervention that Viktor Frankl incorporated into his model of logotherapy.  Paradoxical intention reveals the “choice point” (resist or allow) as a central concept upon which we can build our recovery model.  A therapist using Frankl’s paradoxical intention intervention will ask a client to go toward or engage with their scary thoughts or behaviors. The paradox is that this exercise is designed to be triggering. It’s supposed to create anxiety and fear.

Sound familiar?

Here’s where the choice point comes in. When a client is triggered during a paradoxical intention intervention, the therapist plays the role of coach, discouraging avoidance and escape responses and encouraging the client to explore alternate reactions.  The therapist is there to help the client make different choices when triggered.  CHOICES.

Sounding more familiar now, isn’t it?

When we choose alternate reactions and responses in that triggered state, we are directly addressing the fear of fear. We are challenging the idea that feeling anxious or afraid is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs. Those alternate reactions help us learn that we don’t have to fear anxiety, scary sensations, scary thoughts, and fear itself – as much as we have for the past few weeks, months, or even years. 

Are you following so far?

Doesn’t this look a while lot like exposure and response prevention. Can you hear Claire Weekes saying “Utter, utter, acceptance!”? Can you hear me repeating the word “surrender” again and again?  Maybe the phrase “willful tolerance” is in your head when you hear about the paradoxical intention therapy technique. Yes, it looks very much like the recipe for an exposure exercise. Really, when you get down to brass tacks, lots of different types of therapy approaches include some form of facing, acceptance, and even exposure to some degree.

But that’s not our issue today. Our issue today is that many in our community wind up frustrated because they will insist that when triggered by anxious sensations, thoughts, or fears, they have no choice. Running is the only possible action. Begging to be rescued is the only thing that can be done. Resistance is automatic! There is no possible way to surrender, drop resistance, float, accept, or willfully tolerate.

From this point of view we often hear the “HOW?” questions.

  • HOW can I accept?
  • HOW can I tolerate?
  • HOW can I drop my resistance?
  • HOW can I possibly not run or ask to be saved from these horrible thoughts and feelings?

If these sound familiar to you, don’t worry. It’s not just you. Almost everyone starts from a place where the idea of allowing these awful sensations and thoughts seems completely absurd.  Surely you are not asking me to allow the worst to happen to me?  Yes, that is what I – and people like me – are asking of you. And we are well aware that this is a big ask primarily because it initially makes no sense and requires courage and brave “leaps of faith” in following those that have accepted, floated, surrendered and willfully tolerated before you.

Here’s the rub. We are all free to choose the paths we feel best fit our circumstances and contexts. You may feel that the only possible reaction to anxiety and fear is to run or to “forcibly regulate” your nervous system (or at least try to do that), or to avoid triggers, or to try to find ways to manage your anxiety symptoms and your thoughts. That’s OK. You are allowed to make that choice. But it is very difficult to make that choice while also listening to a podcast like this one that continually contradicts your beliefs.

If we we are to go down a recovery path based on the concepts you hear in this podcast, in my books, my workshops, or whatever, the first job you have it to at least consider the possibility that having no choice in triggered moments might be incorrect. I’m not saying you have to totally abandon your core beliefs about recovery right this very moment.

It’s OK to be skeptical. It’s natural to be that way, especially in the early stages. But if you are continually digging insisting that there must be specific techniques and steps for being brave and doing scary things, then you run the risk of becoming frustrated and feeling like “nothing works” for you.

What folks like me are suggesting as that you maybe start to soften your stance just a little and at least consider that maybe there is a choice point, even when that point is tiny and lasts for only a few seconds. It usually takes a while to really change that belief, which is fine. There’s no rush. But we have to start by adopting an open stance toward the idea that the unthinkable and impossible may be … thinkable and possible.

Rather than ask HOW do do what you might see as the impossible – making a choice to surrender rather that resist. Let’s instead look at WHY is seems so ridiculous to consider this option. When that first flash of fear hits (Dr. Weekes called it “first fear”), all humans are thrust into a state where the emotional brain is in charge.


These are the natural and expected first reactions for all humans, even non-disordered and fully recovered humans.

In those moments, you will see NO choice in front of you primarily because you are emotionally reasoning. The feelings are so strong and feel so urgent that suggesting that they might be steering you wrong feels like suggesting that you flap your arms and fly around the room. I get that. Emotional reasoning is a powerful thing.

“But this FEELS SO DANGEROUS AND SO REAL! I simply cannot possibly allow such strong feelings.”

Welcome to two core beliefs that stand between you, and this approach to anxiety recovery.

  1. Feelings must be real, and completely followed.
  2. I know myself perfectly. This cannot be challenged.

Accepting that there is a choice point where one becomes aware of the first fear response, steps back, and goes into surrender mode is so difficult because it requires that you examine these two core beliefs. Is it any wonder why so many of us wind up stuck for long periods of time insisting that there must be more to this equation because it can’t possibly be what I’m saying it is?

And now that we have a spotlight on those core beliefs, let’s take a moment to acknowledge where they have have come from. They come from your past experiences, and your self-image, and the things that people in your life have taught you (good or bad). These core beliefs develop over time based on a large number of social, family, experiential, and cultural “inputs”. How you see yourself, how you see the world, how you see other people … these all enter into the picture.

We’re also now immersed in an environment where we’re told daily that every unwanted emotion or internal experience should be fixed immediately or engineered out of our lives. Brain, body, and emotion “hacks” are thrown at us on the daily if we do any scrolling.

Core beliefs exist for a reason that we can acknowledge because we have to if we’re being fair with ourselves. But also, this does not make them unassailable or unchangeable.

Here’s what I can give you today if you’re struggling in this situation right now. If you are sure that you must be missing something or that there must be more instructions that will clarify this unthinkable thing … consider that you are being asked to challenge two very strong core beliefs.  Then ask yourself when those core beliefs might have been wrong in other contexts in your life?

Have there been times when big feelings have steered you wrong? Have you ever been in a fight with a friend of loved one, then found yourself regretting your actions and apologizing the next day. What felt so sure in the heat of the moment wasn’t so sure in the light of the next day.

Have you ever surprised yourself because you were sure you wouldn’t like something, but did? Maybe you were sure you would be a terrible singer but discovered that you can sing after practicing.  Or maybe you decided that you were a terrible cook before discovering that you really can make a solid rack of ribs.

Feelings are not always correct. We do not always know ourselves perfectly. We are wrong all the time. Take a little time to think about when you’ve experienced this in your life. We all have. Then think again about your two assertions about following feelings and knowing yourself perfectly and in an un-challengeable way. 

This might help you open up just a little today. If you can be just a bit more willing to accept the possibility that a choice point exists when triggered, you are winning. Remember that this is a big shift that will take some times. And ultimately you won’t fully believe what I say until you take those brave leaps of faith. So be patient with yourself. Resist the urge to berate yourself for “not getting it”. I said it before and I’ll say it again, these are big asks coming from people like me. We’re asking you to challenge some deeply held beliefs and to challenge some ingrained patterns.

That just doesn’t happen overnight.

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Disclaimer: The Anxious Truth is not therapy or a replacement for therapy. Listening to The Anxious Truth does not create a therapeutic relationship between you and the host or guests of the podcast. Information here is provided for psychoeducational purposes. As always, when you have questions about your own well-being, please consult your mental health and/or medical care providers. If you are having a mental health crisis, always reach out immediately for in-person help.

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)





Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.