How to successfully fail at overcoming anxiety

drspagec by Dr. Nate Page Leave a Comment

This article explains why trying to overcome anxiety will usually backfire. We will also explore how to face your anxiety in a way that actually reduces it.

How does overcoming anxiety backfire?

In reality, working to overcome anxiety often backfires. The more I try to get rid of my anxiety, the more I tend to have it. It is similar to the impact of saying to yourself, “Don’t think of a pink elephant. Stop thinking about a pink elephant! Bad things will happen if I can’t stop thinking about a pink elephant!”

Of course, you won’t be able to stop thinking about a pink elephant with this approach. In fact, you will probably end up thinking about it more–even though you are trying to stop thinking about it. It has become more entrenched, or stuck, in your mind. The same thing can happen when we try to push away our anxiety. It usually becomes more entrenched, or stuck, with us.

Another helpful example is those finger traps you might have played with as a child. Once you place your fingers inside, pulling them apart only tightens the grip and your fingers are more stuck. The harder you pull the tighter the grip. Anxiety also tightens its grip on us the more we try to pull away from it. Counter-intuitively, you must move your fingers towards each other in order for the trap to relax and release its grip on your fingers.

Finger Trap Toys - Northfield Dynamic Therapy Northfield Minnesota

What are panic attacks?

Sometimes, not only will we continue to be “stuck” in our anxiety, but it might escalate. We refer to this ‘backfiring escalation” as a panic attack or an anxiety attack.  I am feeling anxious about my anxiety, or scared that I am scared. Instead of this decreasing my anxiety, it increases it and will soon escalate into panic.  The anxiety folds back in itself to create a positive feedback loop on itself.

A classic example of a feedback loop is when the sound coming out of a speaker accidentally is amplified by a microphone (which then puts out more sound from the speakers and is amplified more through the microphone). Within a second or two the feedback sound grows so loud that everyone in the audience needs to cover their ears. 

A Panic Attack is like a Positive Feedback Loop

So the practice of trying to overcome anxiety can backfire and escalate into a panic attack. 

So how do I reduce my anxiety?

The answer seems counter-intuitive for most people. Instead of overcoming anxiety, you need to be able to face your anxiety and welcome it. Be able to embrace it, and let it be. When you can do that, you experience (1) a sense empowerment, (2) an ability to trust yourself, a (3) recognition that your anxiety is trying to help you, and (4) ultimately a reduction in your anxiety. Just like with the finger traps. When you relax and actually move your fingers closer together (a counter-intuitive move), the trap “releases” your fingers.

What does anxiety therapy look like?

In therapy sessions I help clients recognize these moments when the anxiety releases (after facing it). For example, oftentimes a client will connect with tears when they empower themselves to face their anxiety (and any underlying emotions). If they continue with their sense of empowerment and trust, once the tears die down the anxiety is usually “released”. It is extremely important to help clients recognize these moments, because (as humans) we all easily remember the initial increase in anxiety but it is harder to remember the reduction that occurs after being willing to “ride” the anxiety wave. If we forget the reduction, then it is easier to fall back into a pattern of trying to avoid the anxiety, which will ultimately backfire and lead to more anxiety.

This is the process I use with any anxiety-related concern (social anxiety, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive concerns, phobias, and sometimes post-traumatic stress). A person with OCD will need to face the anxiety of not washing their hands until they are able to feel a sense of empowerment and ultimately a release from the resulting anxiety. A person with social anxiety will need to practice talking with professors or speaking up at the lunchroom table to develop a sense of confidence and ultimately a reduction in anxiety. A person with post-traumatic stress will eventually need to process their trauma (verbally or non-verbally) and the resulting pain in order to recover their sense of power and safety and wholeness.

You determine the pace of therapy work.

Now, it is extremely important to note that there is a time and place for this type of work, and clients should never feel pressured to move faster than they are able. I never engage in this type of work unless/until a client is interested on their own accord.

Some years ago I hiked into a swimming hole in southern Utah. As I sat with my feet in the water I observed several groups of hikers come and go. Many people decided to jump off a ten-foot rock ledge into the water while others opted not to (I was one that opted not to). One group of hikers consisting of two young men and one young woman (probably in their early twenties) arrived and within a few minutes the two men had experimented with jumping off the ledge. The woman wanted to as well and stood for a few moments looking over the edge looking tense. The young men teased her and made several “peer pressure” remarks trying to get her to jump. One even joked that he would throw her in and made a motion toward her. She decided to jump, but it was clear that she didn’t enjoy it. She came up out of the water angry and embarrassed and she didn’t retry jumping off the ledge for the remainder of their time at the swimming hole.

Facing Anxiety - Northfield Dynamic Therapy Northfield Minnesota Psychologists

I have thought of this situation often and would love to be able to rewind the clock and observe what would have happened if the two young men had been patient and let her go at her own pace. My guess is that she would have had a positive experience jumping, and possibly opted to continue jump multiple times.

Of course, I would have also loved to see the young men treat her with some more kindness and compassion regardless of if she decided to jump.

I view all therapy working in this way, but especially when working on anxiety concerns. If a client moves “too fast” or feels too much pressure, they will not benefit from being able to face their anxiety. I never move faster than the client is able/willing. Oftentimes, much of the therapy work together is helping a client get to a point where they are prepared to start facing their anxiety.

If you are feeling “stuck” or “trapped” in your anxiety and are ready to reach out for help, please contact a professional that understands how to work with anxiety.

If you have any questions about this blog post, let me know!

All material in this post is intended to provide general information and does not constitute medical, legal, financial or other professional advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to diagnose any condition or provide mental health treatment (disclaimer adapted from Creativity in Therapy website: http://creativityintherapy.com/)

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