How to Reduce Stress and Anxiety Caused by Classical Conditioning

Negative life experiences may result in stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and an increased sensitivity to criticism due to something called classical conditioning.

What is classical conditioning?

Some stimuli naturally evoke certain responses such as dogs salivating when they see food, babies being frightened by loud noises, and people experiencing painful emotions after being rejected. The stimulus and response are unconditioned because they occur naturally.

When a neutral stimulus occurs before another stimulus that evokes a certain response (such as ringing a bell before feeding a dog), the brain may associate the two and respond to the neutral stimulus (hearing a bell) the same way it responds to the other stimulus (seeing food). That’s what Ivan Pavlov found in an experiment with dogs. The Little Albert experiment confirmed that classical conditioning also occurs in humans when the researcher showed that an 11 month old baby could be conditioned to fear a white lab rat he initially wasn’t afraid of by making a loud noise to frighten him after showing him the rat on several occasions.

The new response to the neutral stimulus is called a conditioned response because it occurs as a result of the brain associating the neutral stimulus with the other stimulus.

Classical Conditioning and Phobias

The following example shows how classical conditioning can cause a person who is attacked by a dog to become afraid of dogs:

The mind associating dogs with being assaulted (bitten) can result in people responding to dogs the same way they respond to being assaulted (fear). Unlike CBT, where people are taught that thoughts influence emotions, classical conditioning doesn’t involve thoughts at all. Once conditioned to fear dogs, people may remain afraid of dogs even if they no longer remember being bitten. A bad experience with a dog when you’re 3 years old that you can’t remember can make you afraid of dogs when you’re 30 years old although it’s not the dog itself that causes fear but the conditioned response to it. The process described above can explain many phobias people experience including social anxiety.

Since classical conditioning can occur whenever any neutral stimulus occurs before any other stimulus that evokes a certain response, it can affect everyone in a variety of ways.

Classical Conditioning in Autism

Here’s an example that may be relevant to some people who are autistic:

Bob had great parents who loved him. When he was a baby, his parents rocked him back and forth which made him feel loved and secure. When he first learned to walk when he was 12 months old, his parents were happy for him and praised him. He felt better and liked to walk back and forth around his house. Around 15 to 24 months old, the effects of autism became more apparent. His parents were frustrated and disappointed with his behavior. Bob tried to change his behavior to please his parents but found it difficult. Since neither Bob nor his parents were aware of autism affecting his behavior, his parents thought he just had a behavior problem and kept trying to get him to change while Bob felt his parents were being harsh and overly critical which led him to conclude they didn’t like him. As a result of the above, Bob’s mind may have formed the following associations:

The above example explains why some people are sensitive to criticism (due to their mind associating it with rejection) and how classical conditioning can sometimes be beneficial (allowing people to feel better and reduce their anxiety by rocking and pacing).

It’s also possible for a neutral stimulus to become associated with a conditioned stimulus. For example, if Bob’s mind associated being himself with criticism, Bob may have been afraid to be himself and avoided saying or doing anything that people might think is weird.

Effects of classical conditioning:

If your mind associated negative reactions (such as frustration and disappointment) with rejection when you were a toddler, you may have experienced painful emotions associated with rejection whenever anyone reacted negatively to your behavior. If that happened, the emotions and the stress they caused would have been overwhelming and likely forced you to cope by withdrawing from people and learning to be content being alone by suppressing your emotions and convincing yourself you didn’t need other people or were better off alone.

Being chronically alone, even if you aren’t lonely, and feeling like you’re different than other people has been shown to cause stress and anxiety.

If a history of criticism convinced you that something was wrong with you, your mind may have associated criticism with feeling defective or inferior which can result in you feeling worse about yourself when you are criticized and contribute to a low self-esteem and depression.

Treatment / Cure

If you avoid the conditioned stimulus (dogs and criticism in the two examples above), the association your brain formed with the conditioned response (fear of dogs or experiencing painful emotions after being criticized) will never go away. Avoidance has been shown to strengthen those associations. That’s why the most effective treatment for conditioned responses is exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy involves exposing yourself to the conditioned stimulus with the goal of reverting it back to a neutral stimulus. If you expose yourself to the conditioned stimulus (dog or criticism) and the unconditioned stimulus your mind associated it with doesn’t occur (being assaulted/bitten by the dog or feeling rejected), the association will weaken and can eventually break if you expose yourself to it enough times. However, if you’re bitten or rejected (using the two examples earlier), the association will strengthen.

Exposing yourself to the conditioned stimulus is fairly straightforward. Using the examples above, you would spend more time around dogs or be yourself and stop trying to avoid criticism. You could also disagree with someone or deliberately act odd to provoke someone to criticize you.

Avoiding the stimulus it’s associated with is trickier. In the dog example, if you just wanted a pet dog, you could spend time with friendlier dogs less likely to bite you. You might still retain a fear of “mean” dogs but that might not matter if you’re hardly ever around them.

Criticism and Feeling Rejected

Using the criticism and rejection example, you may have unknowingly already broken that association with some people such as your school teachers. Your teachers probably criticized or pointed out mistakes on assignments and exams but you may have quickly realized they did that to everyone and knew they were trying to help you learn and didn’t feel rejected when they did it. It’s also not uncommon for autistic people to be comfortable being themselves around a spouse or parent because they know that person has good intentions and isn’t rejecting them when they make a negative comment about something.

How do you break an association between criticism and rejection with people in general so criticism no longer bothers you? The same way you may have broken it with your teachers, a parent, or a spouse. That’s by realizing that most people who criticize you aren’t rejecting you. It may seem like they are if you developed a conditioned response to criticism that causes you to feel emotions associated with rejection. Now that you’re aware of classical conditioning, you now know that just because you feel rejected doesn’t mean you’re actually being rejected. You can remind yourself of that before you seek out criticism to reduce the likelihood that you’ll think you’re being rejected. It also helps to know common reasons why people react negatively to autistic people such as being uncomfortable (it’s natural to fear people who act different because odd behavior can indicate that someone is a threat or is planning to harm you) or misunderstanding you (very common due to autistic people seeing the world differently than most people due to different life experiences).

Most of the things people say or do can be interpreted in multiple ways. The more favorably you’re able to view those criticizing you, the less likely you’ll feel rejected, and the easier it will be to break your mind’s association between criticism and rejection. It’s in your best interest to assume the best in people instead of the worst while working to break that association. It also helps to focus on how you’re like other people instead of focusing on your differences.

Of course, some people won’t like you because no one is liked by everyone but understanding that you’re just being rejected or disliked by those people and not by society in general can help reduce your mind’s association between criticism and rejection.

Criticism and Feeling Inferior

If your mind associated criticism with feeling defective or inferior, it helps to understand and accept that everyone has flaws and none of them make you any less worthy than anyone else. Acknowledge your weaknesses without overgeneralizing them by thinking you’re stupid, inept, defective, inferior, or a loser. Overcoming conditioned responses can help you realize your feelings are normal and help you feel better about yourself.

The information above and the two examples shown earlier can be used to help you overcome any kind of stress, anxiety, and other emotions you experience that result from classical conditioning.

How Becoming Less Sensitive can Reduce your Stress

Breaking the association between criticism and rejection can reduce or eliminate your stress by allowing you to be yourself without having to worry about feeling worse if people react negatively. If your mind no longer associates criticism with anything negative, you’ll no longer be sensitive to criticism.

Trauma and PTSD

If you’re thinking about using exposure therapy to overcome conditioned responses to traumatic events, you may experience intense and overwhelming emotions that you might not be able to handle without adequate support (preferably from a qualified therapist). Therapists use gradual exposure therapy, along with several other treatments and support, to help patients overcome trauma. If your trauma resulted in PTSD, it’s not wise to treat it on your own. At the very least, get a book at the library or book store written by a therapist experienced in treating PTSD before proceeding and take a break if your emotions get too intense.