The Anxiety Lens: How Context Changes Meaning

Has anyone ever called you a jerk?

Go ahead.  Raise your hand.  Being called a jerk is not always a bad thing.  The word “jerk” doesn’t always have to mean a “contemptibly obnoxious person”, as Google’s dictionary so concisely phrases it.

Consider the below conversation:

Roommate 1: Have you seen my Calculus book?  I have a final exam tomorrow.  I need to study.
Roommate 2: Yep…I needed a few bucks, so I sold it back to the bookstore for beer money.
Roommate 1: …are you kidding me?  What the hell, man?  That’s my book!
Roommate 2: Yeah, I know…but I never saw you reading it, so I figured you didn’t need it.
Roommate 1: You’re a jerk!  Now I’m screwed for my exam.

And now, this one:

Girlfriend: I love going on walks with you. It’s so warm out, though — I wish it would rain!
Boyfriend: Oh yeah? You want it to rain?
Girlfriend: Sure.  I think it would be nice to cool off a bit.
[Boyfriend reaches up, grabs a wet tree branch, and shakes it.]
Boyfriend: There!  It’s raining!  Ha.
Girlfriend: Haha…you’re a jerk!  I’m soaked.

Does “you’re a jerk” mean the same thing in both conversations?  Definitely not.

Context matters.

I think most of us would agree that Roommate 2 is, indeed, a contemptibly obnoxious person.  But is Boyfriend?  Within the context of a loving relationship, a word that would typically be insulting is transformed into a playful — even flirtatious — remark.

Likewise, anxiety can change the way we understand the events and the people around us.  It’s an (often distorted) lens through which we interpret the world.

On a day when you’re feeling calm, vacuuming the floor might be a pleasure.  But on a day when you’re feeling too anxious, vacuuming the floor might feel like an insurmountable task.

Take that previous paragraph, remove the “vacuuming” part, and insert virtually any activity: going to work.  Driving to the grocery store.  Playing with your kids.  Taking a jog.  Taking a class.  Taking a shower.  It’s almost like Mad Libs.

Still works, doesn’t it?

Anxiety is a lens that can magnify problems and downplay pleasures.  It’s often cruel and unforgiving.

So, how can we remove the lens?  How can we see the world more clearly and more realistically?  What can we do to live our lives without punishing ourselves via the whole mountains-out-of-molehills thing?

The first step is to realize when you’re viewing the world through The Anxiety Lens.  Try to become conscious of it.  Try to become aware of when you’re artificially amplifying the weight of a problem or a task.  Try to become aware of using overly-polar adjectives to describe the world around you.  Are you really exhausted, or are you just tired?  Do you really feel awful, or do you just feel a little unwell?

Play with this for a few days and see what happens.

And before you do that, here’s something else to play with first.  Take a look at how dramatically context can change the meaning of things.  In this case, the context is the music, the editing style, and the selected clips of the two film trailers for a movie called Heavyweights.

Watch this before you read the next paragraph:

Heavyweights must be a provocative psychological thriller…right?  It’s a jarring film, ripe with action and fear.  Right?  The music, the fade-to-black sequences, and the quick pacing…this is going to be a frightening film.  Isn’t it?

Okay, context change.  That was a fake movie trailer produced by Ryan Trahey.  Now, let’s take a peek at the real one — and remove that artificially-instilled Anxiety Lens. Watch:

Wait — where’d that psychological thriller go?  It’s gone.  You just watched the actual trailer for a lighthearted, feel-good Disney comedy.

Context is a powerful thing indeed.

Creative Commons License photo credit: beast love

The Anxiety Lens: How Context Changes Meaning

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2011). The Anxiety Lens: How Context Changes Meaning. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jun 2011
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