What Maintains Chronic Worry?
Why don’t people notice how they’re getting tricked by anxiety, panic, and worry and just naturally move past it?
This question bedevils the sufferers of chronic anxiety disorders. They fear the answer is that they’re defective in some way—too weak, too cowardly, too stupid, and so on.
The truth is none of those. They don’t get over it because they get blinded by their reliance on safety behaviors and other factors, which prevents them from seeing the problem and its solution clearly.
Safety behaviors are naturally occurring preparations and responses to moments of high anxiety: efforts at protecting ourselves from perceived danger.
This is where the idea of “face your fears” comes from. Safety behaviors and objects offer to “protect” you from your fears but actually strengthen them. Practice, or exposure to what you fear, will gradually remove the fears. But the spirit in which you do the exposure is just as important as the exposure itself. I don’t like the phrase “face your fears.” It sounds too much like a confrontation—a staring contest, a toe-to-toe argument, or a physical struggle with an external opponent. That’s not the spirit that’s best suited for overcoming these fears. Working with, rather than against, your signs and symptoms of anxiety is a much more helpful attitude to take when you do exposure work.
The Rule of Opposites
The Rule of Opposites says this: My gut instinct of how to respond to panic and high anxiety is typically dead wrong and following that instinct makes my troubles worse rather than better. So I will respond with the opposite of my gut instinct.
Examples of How to Use the Rule of Opposites
Public speaking fears. Fearful speakers can similarly catch themselves in the act of getting tricked into certain unhelpful responses—standing rigidly behind a podium and gripping the edges tightly, staring at their notes and avoiding eye contact with the audience, rushing in an effort to keep talking every moment and avoiding any pauses. The speaker would be well served to notice each of these micro-behaviors of anxiety and do the opposite—standing in a relaxed posture at the podium with hands at their sides or gently resting on the podium, looking out at the audience and making occasional eye contact with various individuals while referring to his notes without reading them or staring at them, and periodically pausing for a breath while giving the audience time to digest what they said. All of these are good counters to the worry trick.
Breathe Through Panic
Feeling short of breath is a hallmark of panic attacks. People try so hard to take a deep breath during a panic attack, only to find that their breathing usually feels worse rather than better.
Feeling short of breath, with its attendant fears of fainting and dying, is perhaps the most universal of the panic symptoms. There’s no danger, but plenty of discomfort, in this symptom. There’s plenty of frustration and aggravation as well because when people try to take the deep breath they want, it often just brings more discomfort. The Rule of Opposites can guide you to start your breath with a sigh, rather than an inhale, and thereafter breathe with your belly rather than your chest.
Practice, Don’t Protect
When you’re afraid of something—an object or living creature, a place or situation, or an activity—there’s a natural tendency to avoid it.
This is usually a good thing. Fear alerts us to potential dangers in our environment.
But we can also become afraid when we’re not in any danger, and that’s the tricky part. We can become afraid in response to unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations within us, rather than in response to dangerous objects and events in the environment. That’s how people with fears and phobias get tricked into avoiding and fleeing ordinary activities, objects, and locations that aren’t particularly dangerous.
It’s a natural response to avoid what seems fearful, but when it becomes habitual, it contributes to the maintenance of anxiety disorders. Working “with” rather than against the signs and symptoms of anxiety can help you move in a better direction.
Catch Worry in the Act
If you who struggle with chronic worry, you are often flooded with what-if thoughts about bad events that could possibly happen in the future. These what-if thoughts are the bait that lures you into obsessing about a bad event that, while it’s unlikely to happen, is possible…because nothing is truly impossible!
Once you get tricked into taking the bait, you’re hooked—maybe for a few minutes, maybe for a few hours, maybe for the entire morning—as you work that worrisome thought for all it’s worth. Sooner or later, that episode of worry ends, but it feels lousy while it lasts, and you’re strengthening a worry habit that keeps recurring.
What-if thoughts can easily trick you into feeling as though bad things are happening when you’re only having thoughts of bad things running through your mind. If you take the bait of these thoughts and argue with them, this will fuel the worry habit.
Detecting the trick in your own worrisome thoughts. When you are better able to notice the bait of what-if thoughts, you’ll be in a better position to respond in a different manner.
Humor Your Worries
It’s all too easy to get tricked into taking the content of the what-if thoughts seriously. Even if you recognized the call from the telemarketer as a sales call, that wouldn’t help much if you got into an angry argument with him, tried to show him the error of his ways, or treated the call seriously in any way at all. Unfortunately, that’s what most people do. They take the content of the worry seriously. Even when they recognize that the thoughts are unreasonable and unlikely, they often argue with them and feel worse for the effort.
Taking the content of these what-if thoughts seriously causes problems…and so an effective counter might be to take these thoughts more lightly and respond to the anxiety they offer with humor.
Chronic anxiety is a counterintuitive experience, and nothing is more counterintuitive than intrusive worrisome thoughts. People are often nervous about allowing and accepting these anxious thoughts. Some people even fear that they can make bad things happen just by thinking of them. However, the counterintuitive reply of humoring and playing with the thoughts, rather than resisting and arguing with them, is perhaps one of the best ways to respond to this kind of worry.
Observe, Don’t Distract
You might now be wondering, How about if I distract myself when I get anxious? How about if I make myself stop thinking about worrisome topics and think about something pleasant?
The short answer is no. Trying to suppress or remove your anxious thoughts will generally make your situation worse rather than better. When it comes to anxiety symptoms, what you resist, persists.
Far from being a useful tool, distraction in all its varieties serves to maintain and enhance anxiety troubles, rather than relieve them. Finding ways to more fully occupy the role of observer will help you acquire an awareness of your symptoms coupled with a more detached attitude toward them.
Let Your Support People Go!
People who struggle with anxiety disorders often rely on “support people” (also called “safe people”) to help them cope with the situations, activities, and objects they fear. In the presence of support people, they often do more of life’s activities—travel, shop in crowded stores, interact with people—than they believe they can manage on their own. Unfortunately, this opportunity to engage in life activities comes with a high price. It tricks you into believing that you can’t and couldn’t handle these situations on your own and leads you to feel more dependent and less capable over time.
The opposite of relying on a support person is doing things alone. That’s a scary idea for people who have come to rely heavily on the presence of a support person. For now, be aware that you don’t have to go it alone all at once, without any planning. You can take steps at a pace that works for you. But letting your support people go is the way to counter the trick of feeling so dependent on others and regain your ability to rely on yourself.
Leave Support Objects at Home
Support objects are items that people take with them in an effort to minimize the anxiety they feel when they venture outside of their “safe zone.” Support objects function in much the same way as support people, except that you won’t get any backtalk from support objects. Common support objects include medications, comfort animals, water bottles, cell phones, pictures of the grandkids, snack foods, items thought to possess “good luck,” books, and more.
Reliance on a support object typically provides a short-term benefit and a long-term disadvantage. People often feel less anxious and get more of their daily activities done when they bring support objects with them. That’s the short-term benefit. However, people often feel “protected” by the object in ways that suggest they couldn’t function well on their own without it. That’s the long-term disadvantage. Reliance on the support object usually decreases your sense of being able to manage life’s challenges on your own. It maintains and strengthens your anxiety long term, rather than reduces it.
The Truth Will Set You Free!
Secrecy and shame work hand in hand to strengthen and maintain anxiety and worry troubles. The more people feel ashamed of their troubles, the more likely they are to get tricked into hiding them and keeping them secret from others. The reverse is also true. The more people keep their troubles a secret, the more ashamed they will feel. It’s a double whammy! Each one increases the other.
The opposite of secrecy is honesty, what psychologists often call self-disclosure. People who struggle with chronic anxiety and worry often feel so ashamed that the idea of self-disclosure is a nonstarter for them, and it might seem that way to you as well.
When people feel ashamed of their troubles with anxiety and worry, they tend to try to hide the problem. And the more they try to hide the problem, the more shame they experience. Reviewing all the costs and benefits associated with keeping your anxiety a secret from people who care for you might reveal some advantages to breaking the secrecy and doing some self-disclosure with those people.
Control Actions and Accept Feelings
When you struggle with a chronic anxiety disorder, you probably focus a lot on how you feel. That’s understandable because you want so much to feel better.
Anxiety can trick you into judging your day, or week, by how you felt. If you felt good, you judge that as a good day, and if you felt anxious, you judge that as a bad day. Even worse, anxiety can trick you into trying to control your feelings, and that hardly ever ends well.
We don’t control our feelings. The only thing we can really control is what we do. And you’ll probably be better off by controlling, and focusing on, what you do, rather than how you feel.
Feel the Fear and Let It Pass
Don’t try to get rid of your fears, or even calm down, while you’re doing exposure practice. When you get tricked into opposing, fleeing, and otherwise trying to get rid of your fears during exposure practice, it undermines the benefits you will get from exposure and makes the problem worse.
Instead, let yourself feel afraid. Allow yourself to experience the scary thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without trying to get rid of them or distract yourself from them. Practice, a step at a time, with situations that elicit your panic, worry, and anxiety and allow yourself to feel afraid. Do not attempt to oppose or interrupt the anxiety that ensues. Follow these steps:
- Spend time with what you fear: the object, activity, situation, or even thoughts.
- Reduce your use of safety behaviors, people, and objects as much as you are willing. Work toward having none of them during exposure practice.
- Get afraid.
- Allow yourself to experience the fear without trying to get rid of it.
- Stay with it until the fear level comes down some, mostly on its own. Let the fear leave, at least in part, before you do.
- Review your results. What happened as a result of exposure, and what didn’t happen? How does that compare with what you anticipated?
- Repeat as necessary, on a regular basis.