Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Five Thing that People Believe about Anxiety—that actually make it worse.

If you have been anxious for a period of time in your life then you have likely developed some thoughts about your anxiety. You have probably come up with explanations and descriptions of your anxiety. After all, humans naturally look around themselves and try to explain their world. Your internal world is no different.

When I treat anxiety I explore what thoughts the person has about anxiety itself. Some thoughts are helpful and some are neutral. But what I really want to identify here are some of the thoughts that cause anxiety to get worse, or the thoughts that make it more difficult to treat. Below I have listed five common thoughts that people with anxiety have about their anxiety. All five thoughts make anxiety worse or harder to address.

What is particularly interesting is the strength with which people believe these myths! I have noticed that when they are challenged, people rush to defend them. As you read through these five beliefs, ask yourselves which ones you believe—and which ones you want to defend.


1. I can't control my anxiety.

This is the number one myth that I hear from anxious patients. People come to me and say, “I've tried to control my anxiety, and I just can't!” Upon further assessment, the truth usually is “I have tried to control my anxiety and I have not yet succeeded.” Generally, this is a result of the ways that the person has attempted to control the anxiety: Either by ignoring it, numbing, or repressing it. These techniques are not effective, so it's not fair to say that the person can't control anxiety; it's fair to say that they haven't yet tried an effective technique.

Believing that anxiety cannot be controlled means that every intervention the person tries to cope with anxiety will be met with self-sabotage. We know that people put more effort into tasks they believe they can achieve, and less effort when they know they will not succeed. The same is true about mental health: Anxiety is controllable, but if you keep telling yourself that it isn't, you are not going to bring your best effort to the task.

So if you believe this myth, try this instead: It may seem like I cannot control my anxiety, but ultimately I know that I can.

2. My anxiety is genetic.

No, it is not. True, there does seem to be some general genetic component to anxiety, true. But there is a difference between “predisposition” and “reality.” A person's experience of anxiety is more a factor of internal thoughts and external environment than genetic factors. In other words, while your genes may set the stage for your anxiety, your actual anxiety is a factor of your life and your thoughts. Fortunately, you have control over your thoughts and your environment. Frequently, “my anxiety is genetic” is an excuse people use to avoid the difficult work of addressing their anxiety.

If you believe this myth, try this instead: My anxiety is unique to me, and I can do something about it.

3. Worrying about possible tragedies makes me more prepared for them.

No, it does not. Worrying about bad things that might happen just means you are directing your mind to picture all the possible terrible things that might happen. You are making yourself anxious, and you are actually decreasing your ability to problem-solve. If you are looking at a specific task, you are rehearsing all the ways you can fail.

The reality is that if you spend time worrying about a particular bad outcome, and then that outcome actually happens, you will have conditioned yourself to be less effective in handling that outcome, because you will have associated it with worry. In other words, worrying about possible tragedies makes you less prepared for them.

If you believe this myth, try this instead: I can find effective ways to address the things I worry about.

4. Medication is the only way to control anxiety.

No, it is not. While medication can be an effective tool, research has shown that talk therapy is just as effective, and in some cases more effective, than anti-anxiety medication. Additionally, the skills learned in talk therapy can be used at any time, in any circumstance. Further, talk therapy can address the root cause of the anxiety, while reliance on medication alone does not.

Taking anti-anxiety medication is nothing to be ashamed of. And if you need it, then take it.

But believing that medication is the only way to treat anxiety actually makes anxiety worse, because the person comes to believe that they require the medication. In other words, over-reliance on medication makes the experience of anxiety itself something that is beyond the individual's ability to control. Believing anxiety must be medicated away makes anxiety itself something to be frightened of.

If you believe this myth, try this: While my medication helps with symptom relief, I can do things to address my anxiety for myself.

5. If I'm anxious about something, that means that I have something to be frightened of.

No, that is not what anxiety means. Anxiety, as an emotion, is always real and almost always has a specific cause. But that is not the same thing as saying that there is always something that is actually threatening.You can experience anxiety (or fear, for that matter) when there is no actual threat. It happens all the time. You can probably think of several examples in your own life.

In fact, our problem anxiety often arises when our minds believe there is something threatening when there is not.

This myth can cause people to avoid the things that cause them anxiety. But if you avoid the things that make you anxious, you are reinforcing the belief that you have a legitimate reason to be anxious. This can make your anxiety worse, and make the things that trigger your anxiety even more frightening.

If you believe this myth, try this: Anxiety is my emotion, not my reality.

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