[From Eva de Hullu (2019.08.02 21:46 CEST)
thinking about how to explain anxiety from a PCT perspective, and wrote
an outline (below) in which my hypothesis is that anxiety happens when a reference value for a needed control system does not exist. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it, do you think I’m on the right track here? How does this relate to other people’s thoughts and papers?
I’m travelling, so I will not be able to respond immediately or elaborately. I’ll carefully read responses nonetheless and will react in
Understanding Anxiety from a PCT perspective
This is an effort to understand anxiety and explain its symptoms from a perceptual control theory perspective.
We’ll start with an example.
Imagine that you’re trying to ride a skateboard, for the very first time in your life. You have no idea at all how to stay upright and ride the board, while it’s rolling.
There are several ways this scenario could pan out. First, you could lift your foot off the ground, place it on the board, look in the direction you’d like to roll, and start rolling. You’ll get the feeling! Now the second time you ride the board, it will be your second time in your life, and you know how it feels. You can probably do this again.
A second scenario could go like this: You imagine lifting your foot from the floor, and falling over backwards, hurting your head and landing yourself in hospital. The moment you hesitantly lift your foot, you feel the board starting to roll and you immediately step off the board, safely on the ground. It’s probably not for you.
A scenario in between would be something like you stepping on the board, feeling insecure for a moment, stepping off again, trying again and slowly starting to feel more confident. But in understanding anxiety, we’ll start from the extremes.
Anxiety is the absence of control in a context where you want to have control. Control from a PCT perspective means that you are able to have the experience you want to experience. In the skateboard example, you’ll want to ride the skateboard smoothly. If you manage that, you’ll have control. If you want to ride the board, but you can’t manage to, you don’t control the perception of yourself riding the board.
If you don’t control a perception that you don’t want to control, there’s no problem. I never have wanted to ride a skateboard, so it’s not something I’m anxious about. The wanting to control a certain perception, is a central aspect of anxiety: it’s the reference point, your goal.
You want something that you’re not yet able to accomplish. You’re not able to accomplish your goal, because you haven’t got the reference of how your goal should be, yet. You know you want to ride a skateboard, but you haven’t got the reference to guide you through the motions yet. You haven’t got a sense for the right posture. You have never experienced it before.
We can look at this situation through the hierarchical levels of perceptions.
The highest order goal (the why) is that you want to be able to ride a skateboard, for reasons that are important to you, such as to gain street credibility. You want to be a person that rides a skateboard. In order to do so (the how), you need to have to develop skills to ride the skateboard, consisting of certain motions and body positions. These motions and positions together form a reference for ‘skateboarding.’ Skateboarding is a single perception, consisting of many lower-level perceptions (the motions and positions).
System concepts level: To be a person that’s able to skateboard
Principle level: To find myself skateboarding
Program level: various postures and moves that help me ride the board, using all the lower level systems.
So the control that needs to be established is at the principle level. There’s no reference yet inside my system that tells the lower level systems how skateboarding done right, feels. So all the postures and moves that I try, are unguided and disconnected. And still I want to be able to skateboard, the highest level tells me. So there’s a gap in the control system hierarchy.
This gap, the missing reference on the principle level, can be filled from two directions. One is top-down, if somehow the higher system could specify all the correct programs to run. But that’s the most difficult route for a thing such as skateboarding, better try bottom up: once you experience how skateboarding feels, you’ll be able to use that perception as a future reference for skateboarding. In order to get this perception, you need to find yourself in a situation where by chance and persistence (and some help from an expert perhaps), all the lower level systems are aligned well enough to keep you on the rolling board. At the moment where you’ll get the feeling that you’ve got it, you’ve got this new perception and you’ve gained control (albeit fragile) of this new skill.
Back to anxiety. So we understand that anxiety accompanies this situation where you want to control something, but need to experience loss of control (acting in the absence of control: jumping on the board) before control is gained. Without a successful experience, anxiety persists.
This temporary loss of control is not a problem for many of us. We step into the unknown hesitantly, but step forward nonetheless. We accept the risk, the slight feeling of insecurity.
The problem starts when you don’t accept this moment without control, for example because you’ve got a higher order reference to be composed and well mannered at all times. Loss of composure would then conflict with this higher level goal, and you’d avoid finding yourself in a situation where you lose control both of the lower level goals (skateboarding) and the higher level goal of preserving a favorable self-image.
Once you are anxious, the lower levels of our control systems, your sensations, start demanding attention. Whatever you’re doing: it doesn’t feel right. You’re trembling, sweating, heart pounding. These are unwanted sensations (errors): you probably don’t want to feel like that. Again, some higher level systems guide how you want to feel, and these demand that these sensations return back to normal. So there’s another incentive to quit trying to ride the skateboard (or ask for proper help).
Perceptual Control theory poses that when there’s no control within a set of control systems, attention is directed towards these systems. Depending on the level involved, this could have the form of attention, awareness or consciousness. Wherever attention is directed, that’s where the control systems generate random outputs in order to regain control within that system. These are random references (‘make it so’) to lower-level systems, or actions (at the lowest systems).
What happens to attention in case of anxiety? Attention goes to the perceptions of anxiety sensations: the trembling, sweating. And to the highest level system, where you want to ride the skateboard. But since there is not yet a control system that guides riding the skateboard on the principle level, attention cannot be directed towards that system. It’s not yet complete, because there is no reference yet.
Attention is needed at the level below the demanding control system: at the program level, where all the moves and postures are taken care of. It’s like concentrating on the task: when you do that, all attention is used to generate the best possible solutions for all those control systems, until the higher level systems senses that control is gained: now you’re rolling!
–> this text will be updated (and comments are welcome) at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1A0IL2sQejZQQBKW68Fyp6LAW5VABVypbcOr6H8JooCQ/edit?usp=sharing