This is a new model of anxiety that I have devised. My aim is to help clients understand what is happening, and to understand how best to overcome it.
I give particular thanks to the research work of Lisa Feldman Barrett. Her concept of the “predictive brain” was the missing piece in my thinking on anxiety. It also provides an extra, important element to models that currently exist.
The DIP Loop describes how humans work as we interact with the world and ourselves. As such, this model is useful in thinking about other forms of distress too. It is not restricted to anxiety.
I named it The DIP Loop to describe the three stages : Data, Interpretation and Physiology. Also, as anyone who feels anxious will recognise, the process loops rather than being a one-off event.
The Predictive Brain
Barrett’s concept of the predictive brain was important in creating the DIP Loop Model.
This posits that the brain is a prediction machine. Here are some examples that you may recognise.
You are listening to a new song on the radio. Suddenly, the tune twists your ear in the most delightful and unexpected way. Why was it unexpected? Because it broke your brain’s prediction of the note you expected next.
You are on a park bench and a squirrel is between the two trees opposite. You look down briefly to open your book. You look back up and to your suprise the scene is different. The squirrel you expected to see again is gone. You had a picture in your mind’s eye of what you would see when you looked up. But the scene changed when you looked away. The new scene broke your expectations.
You are reading this article, and you have a clear expectation of how this sentence will bonanza. The word bonanza didn’t fit that expectation. I broke your brain’s prediction.
You are watching a comedian. They start telling you a story and then close it with something so unexpected that you burst out laughing. They had you thinking about a concept in one way, and then twisted it to make you laugh. Had you have seen it coming, it wouldn’t have been funny. A comic’s job is to outwit your predictive brain to produce laughter.
So Why Does This Matter?
These are some examples of your predictive brain at work. But it is predicting all the time in ways that affect your body. It doesn’t wait and react. It is constantly guessing what happens next to prepare your body for the task.
This is why you don’t faint when you stand up. Whenever you stand up, a lot of physical changes happen inside the body. Your heart speeds up and makes sure the blood goes to your head. Once your brain predicts you are about to stand, it makes those physical changes for you.
If it waited until you were stood up, it would be too late to stop you from collapsing. Having a brain that is a prediction machine is super efficient.
Now you get that the brain predicts. You understand that the brain makes physical changes based on those predictions. So let’s look at the DIP Loop Model itself.
So what is the DIP Loop Model
The DIP Loop Model Consists of 3 stages in a loop:
3. Physiology (or Physical Changes)
Let’s take them in turn.
The brain receives sensory data all the time. It is receiving it right now as you read this article.
Some of that is external, like what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell.
Some of it is internal. The brain is always getting internal feedback from the body. Which organs need more glucose. Which need more oxygen. The brain spends a lot of its energy regulating the body for us. It can only do this by getting this internal data.
As we go through our day, the brain gets lots of data signals from the world and from your body. There’s that car. There’s your neighbour shouting hello. There’s that rumble in your tummy when you’ve skipped breakfast.
So what does the brain do with all that info? It tries to make sense of it so it becomes useful.
It does this in three ways: it pattern matches, predicts and prepares.
a) it pattern matches.
It asks “what is this LIKE?”
This is the brain’s guess about what is going on. It isn’t asking “what is this?” because it doesn’t fully know. So it asks a less precise question – “what is this like?”
If it notices you chewing something then it might reply with: this is like food.
Note that it might be wrong. You might have some chewing gum instead.
b) it predicts.
The brain is a prediction machine. So it needs to ask “What does this mean?”
That allows it to better guess what it should do next.
If it decides that your chewing means you are about to swallow some food, that gives it a sense of what it should do next.
c) it prepares your body.
Now that it has guessed that you are about to swallow and digest food, it prepares your body for that.
It then makes those changes in your body.
This is an important point to remember. Your body physically changes.
Based on the meaning that your brain has given to what is happening, your body is now in a different physical state.
Because your body is now in a different state, it will feed that information back to the brain in Step 1.
So the process starts all over again.
The Model In Brief
- Data (sensory data from your body and from the world)
- Interpretation (pattern match, predicts, prepares the body)
- Physical Changes
The DIP Loop Model Applied To Anxiety
Step 1 – Data
Let’s say you are in a room. The door is closed.
Step 2 – Interpretation
The brain pattern matches (maybe even out of your awareness) that this is like a time when you felt unsafe.
It gives the situation a meaning of danger. So it predicts that you may need to fight or try to escape.
As such it begins to prepare your body to release the chemicals and increase the blood flow to help you do that.
Step 3 – Physiology
Your body is now changed. There is adrenaline and cortisol pumping through your bloodstream. Your heart is beating much faster. This allows the blood to reach your muscles to make movement easier.
The Loop – And The Possibility For Change
Back To Step 1 – Data
Your brain is now receiving information from your body.
“My breathing is heavy. My heart is racing. I am sweating. I have butterflies in my stomach.”
Back To Step Two – Interpretation
At this stage, the brain will create some meaning about all this stuff happening in your body. The story it comes up with will help it predict what to do next.
It might think: “This is really bad! Look how dangerous the situation must be.”
It might think: “Oh no I must be about to have a heart attack and die.”
It might think: “Oh no, I must be about to faint and everyone will look at me.”
Whatever it is, the meaning it gives will result in some brand new physical changes.
Time To Step In – Interrupting The Loop
You could let the brain ramp up the changes in your body. The more scared it gets, the more it will speed up your heart rate and release the adrenaline.
The brain has a story of “this is dangerous!”
Even though it’s not.
So it will want to increase the physical sensations in your body.
It’s easy to go along with that. But a different route is to devise a different story.
When we get practiced at observing what is happening in the body, it makes a different story possible.
It allows us a different explanation for what is going on in the body.
The panicky brain may be yelling “it’s dangerous.”
But what if we put a different meaning on it?
What if we have a different explanation for the discomfort we feel?
Such as: “I can feel my heart racing because my brain is making a wonky prediction but I’m ok. ”
Or: “I can feel butterflies because the brain has given that closed door a particular meaning, but I’m safe.”
Or: “These feelings are just my brain trying to keep me safe. But it’s had a wonky prediction and I’m really fine.”
In other words, this is your opportunity to step in and say “False alarm.”
How we explain anxious feelings is often key to bringing them back under control.
It’s not just that we get scared. It’s also that we get scared of the scare. We react with fear to the bodily sensations that the initial scare triggered.
As Lisa Feldman Barrett says: “When you make a different meaning out of your physical state, you actually change your physical state.”
Once the first loop is out of the way, we have an opportunity to step in with a different explanation of why you feel this way.
It’s that different meaning that can help to calm you down again.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Here’s a bit of extra detail for you. The data that the brain receives arrives twice, about half a second apart.
The part of your brain that makes the decisions about whether something feels dangerous or not is called the amygdala. It’s such an old part of the brain that even lizards have it.
The amygdala acts like a smoke alarm. It plays a key role in the prediction of danger. So it makes sense that you get that info fast. If there really is a sabre tooth tiger nearby, the quicker you move the better.
So the data is sent to the amygdala by a direct route. It is so direct that it doesn’t even pass through the thinking parts of your brain.
This is why everything feels so automatic. Because it is.
There is no “hmmm, what shall we do about this sabre tooth tiger I’ve just noticed.”
Obviously, that makes sense if you want to get away from it. Who needs the thinking brain to ponder what to do? You just need to act. So you have evolved that way.
However, you’re also missing some key information from the thinking brain too. So that’s a downside. If you get scared at the thing you see as a snake and start moving, it might be helpful if the thinking brain could let you know that in reality it’s just a bit of rope.
The way the body deals with this is to split the Data from Step 1 and send it to your amygdala twice. Once directly so you get moving. Next about a half a second later, via the thinking brain. So this later signal arrives a bit slower, but a bit smarter too.
You will have experienced this for yourself.
Remember a time when you are walking into a room, your mind on other things. A friend or relative has decided to play a practical joke on you. So they hide behind the door and yell BOO when you walk in.
Firstly, the data goes direct to the amygdala. Automatically and involuntarily, you are moving. You have likely leapt back and have probably let out a scream.
Yet half a second later, maybe even mid-scream, you realise that it’s just your friend, and you are not in danger. So your body begins to calm down and you hurl a load of insults at your friend.
That experience of leaping in terror followed quickly by your body beginning to calm again is this process in action.
We get the data. Then we get it again but with some extra information added.
I want you to know this for two reasons.
Firstly, you can know that your initial response of scare and anxiety is nothing to do with you. It’s your amygdala changing your body in ways that your thinking brain was never even consulted about. It’s involuntary.
Secondly, you can understand that when the thinking brain brings added info, this is the body’s chance to hear a “False Alarm” signal.
As the process loops around, you keep getting the chance to intervene with your thinking brain to provide a different meaning that will act as a false alarm.
More than that, your system is specifically set up to listen out for your false alarm signal. It is waiting for you to add a different meaning. It is already listening out for your intervention.
Another Way To Step In – Change The Physical
Like many systems, intervening at any stage of the process creates change.
Barrett says that creating a different meaning changes your physical state. It’s the same the other way around. Creating a calmer physical state creates a different meaning.
You can help out your brain by giving it different data to deal with. Using breathing exercises to lower your heart rate will send different data to the brain.
It will then interpret the lower heart rate by asking “what is this like?”
Its answer will tend to be: “this is like the end of the danger. Phew.”
This new meaning will then stand down the anxiety and bring you back to a calmer state.
Getting More Skilled At Stepping In
This takes a bit of practice but not much. Check in on yourself throughout the day. Get curious about your physical state.
Stephen Porges discovered that we have three key states.
1. Health and Restoration
In this state you feel okay. You’re able to engage with others socially and make eye contact. Your body is happily getting on with its usual tasks like digestion and so on.
2. Panicky – Fight or Flight
In this state, we are flooded with energy so that we can move out of danger. Our body has been prepared to fight or run away. In this state, we feel we have energy to burn and feel agitated and jumpy.
3. Shut Down
In this state, we are drained of energy. We want to hide away from the world. It’s hard to engage with people or to find the energy to do things.
So throughout the day, check in where you are. Deb Dana invites us to think of it like a ladder with many rungs on.
So you might spot that you have one foot in Health and Restoration and the other in Panicky.
You can ask yourself : “how do I know I’m in Panicky? What does that feel like in my body? Without emotional labels, what is happening for me?”
The more you practice checking in on yourself, the easier it will be for you to tell that different story. “Hmm, I can see that I’ve moved into Fight or Flight mode.”
Your anxious feelings now have a new meaning and your physical state changes as a result.
Others find meditation helpful. You can’t do meditation wrong. Just sit for 60 seconds and notice what’s going on inside you. The outside data is much louder than the bodily data. Meditation allows you to hear the inside data a little easier.
It also helps you become more skilled at being the curious observer. So when the anxiety comes, you are in a better place to spot it and provide that different meaning.
What Already Works
Of course, these ideas are not an exhaustive list of what could be helpful. It’s likely that you have some ideas of your own that have already proved useful.
It makes sense to take a pause and see what has already worked for you before.
So here’s a few prompts and questions that may provoke some insights.
- Tell yourself about a time when you did offer a different meaning for why your body was responding this way.
- What meaning did you give it?
- How did you manage to give it that meaning in the midst of those unpleasant bodily feelings?
- What difference did it make for you when you gave it that meaning instead?
- What other times have you done the same thing?
- Next, tell yourself about a time when you were able to make physical changes that sent back calmer data to your brain – even if only a little calmer.
- What did you do that created those calmer feelings?
- How else have you helped your brain to say “this feels like a return to safety” ?
- What other times have you sent back calmer data, and what did you do those times?
My predictive brain won’t be able to forecast the wonderful, unique ways that already work specifically for you. So it’s worth taking some time with these prompts to find out what they are.
You can add those approaches to the list of how best to step in and interrupt the loop.
Time To Check – Are They Escape and Control Strategies?
When you think of things that have already worked for you in some way, make sure they are not escape and control strategies.
The point is to help your brain to say “this feels like a return to safety.”
We don’t want to be helping it think “I was right, this feels like danger.”
Invites to safety help to retrain the brain that its prediction of danger was wonky. It sends safety signals back as data. So the loop gets interrupted. It makes a fresh interpretation and the loop slows to an eventual stop.
Escape and control strategies speed up the loop. They tell the brain that its prediction was spot on, and to keep sending danger signals in the future too.
In the grip of anxiety, it is very tempting to do things that may make us feel a little better for a moment. But they don’t help to retrain the pattern match at all, because they don’t change the meaning.
The anxiety can begin to make pacts with us. Like an old time gangster running a protection racket, the anxiety says: “Do this and I’ll protect you”.
So we obey, and develop routines to either help us no longer feel the anxiety, or to somehow protect us from whatever outcome we feel anxious about.
Yet the respite is only temporary. The anxiety returns demanding even more from us.
For example, when you check the oven repeatedly, the soothe is temporary. Then you feel the need to do it again. Soon the “solution” is an extra problem. It stands in the way of the life you want. The anxiety builds.
Obeying the anxiety tells the brain that its initial interpretation was right. Instead of the false alarm it is listening out for, your actions confirm its meaning of danger.
Invites to safety work differently. The breathing exercise from earlier implies a different meaning.
It says: “My brain has made a wonky prediction. So my body is agitated and my heart is beating fast. I’ll lower my heart rate through breathing differently so the brain realises all is okay.”
Invites to safety are acts of self care rather than acts of panic.
They might be the presence of a friend, some soothing music or stroking a pet. They are things that a brain would notice and conclude: “They are not in danger after all. False alarm.”
The brain does not reach that conclusion when it sees you desperately obeying the demands of your anxiety.
The key is to change your sense of what it means that your body is in a heightened state. You can do that with your thoughts. You can do that with your body. You can do it with both together.
It is counter intuitive. But the tighter your grip, the more your brain will receive a danger signal. The more it will send a danger signal in future too.
Yet the more you let go, even though that seems weird, you teach your brain that there was no danger. You let it know that its prediction was wonky, and to make a prediction of safety in future.
A Quick Recap
My ‘DIP Loop Model’ states that there are three distinct stages
1. Data – sensory information coming from the world and your body
2. Interpretation – the meaning your brain puts on that data in order to try and predict what it should do next with your body
3. Physiology – the changes in your physical state to help you do it
Now you know this, you can understand that your sole job is to send different data back up the loop.
It shows you the two places where you can step in and inerrupt the process.
You can offer a different meaning about why your body is reacting this way. Checking where you are on the ladder, and taking time out to meditate can help you get more skilled at this.
Or you can use breathing to calm your heart rate and so give your brain different data.
On top of that, you may have discovered your own ways of how to send yourself signals of saftey to interrupt the loop too.
Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice