Behaviours that keep us trapped in anxiety
DISTRACTING YOURSELF FROM ANXIETY: Trying to distract ourselves from anxious thoughts and feelings is often one of the first strategies we deploy to try and get rid of anxiety. However, trying to distract ourselves from anxious thoughts and feelings only reinforces the problem. This is because it reinforces the idea that anxiety is dangerous, and because anxiety is caused by apprehensive thinking, this only serves to perpetuate and exacerbate the problem. By being on ‘high alert’ in relation to anxious thoughts and feelings we continue to trigger our body’s ‘freeze, flight or flee’ stress response, resulting in more and more anxiety. Although distraction may bring some temporary relief, during this time we are still on high alert behind the scenes, apprehensively focusing on barring the thoughts and feelings. Instead, we must learn to accept and stay calm in the face of anxious thoughts and feelings, thereby allowing them to pass in their time and for our nervous system to slowly recover.
SEEKING REASSURANCE ABOUT YOUR ANXIETY: Seeking reassurance is another strategy we might deploy to try and get rid of anxiety. Initially we may seek reassurance simply through ourselves, from our own inner voices, from websites, from books, and then when that does not help, we seek reassurance from others. Seeking reassurance treats anxiety as dangerous and, because anxiety is caused by apprehensive thinking, this only serves to perpetuate and exacerbate the problem. At first, reassurance seems to help. Our anxiety goes down a bit and we feel a sense of relief. But then the doubts come back in the form of ‘yes…but what if…’ and then we have to find some new assurance to that ‘what if’ question and so on which causes our anxiety to spiral out of control. Instead, we have to learn to see anxiety for what it really is – simply our body’s primitive survival response designed to help us ‘freeze, fight or flee’ in the face of danger - which we will trigger less and less as we start to learn to think less apprehensively.
FEARING THE SYMPTOMS AND SENSATIONS OF YOUR ANXIETY: No matter how bewildering and frightening the symptoms and sensations of anxiety may initially seem, they are simply the symptoms and sensations of our body’s primitive ‘freeze, fight or flee’ survival stress response. If we allow ourselves to get frightened by them then we perpetuate and exacerbate the problem because anxiety is caused by apprehensive thinking. Instead, we need to learn to accept these symptoms and sensations and remain calm as we experience them, thereby allowing them to pass in their own time and for our nervous system to slowly recover.
ENGAGING IN SAFETY OR AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOURS: To get some level of temporary relief from the unpleasant experience of anxiety, the catastrophic thinking we engaged in as a result, and the situations, event, person, place or thing we came to associate all this with, we may engage in safety and avoidance behaviours. For example, we might make sure we were with someone else in a public place (safety behaviour) or avoid public places completely (avoidance behaviour). Or we might make sure we were always driving and on our own in a car (safety behaviour), or we might avoid being in a car completely (avoidance behaviour).
However, these safety and avoidance behaviours only serve to reinforce our anxiety. This is because they prevent our nervous system from habituating or, in other words, becoming accustomed to those symptoms and sensations, and the situations, events, persons, places or things we associated them with, and therefore relaxing with them. Consequently, those symptoms and sensations, situations, events, persons, places or things remain novel and fearful to us, and therefore arousing and anxiety provoking. Furthermore, avoidance tends to generalise/mushroom over time – for example, we might have started to avoid using an escalator at work and then, over time, we began to avoid all escalators, and then perhaps all buildings with escalators.
Moreover, when we avoid something that scares us, we experience a sense of failure. Thus, every time we put an avoidance or safety behaviour in to place, our anxiety gains strength, whilst we lose some. The more we do this the more we accumulate experiences of failure, which we take as another piece of evidence attesting to our inability to overcome the problem. Furthermore, safety and avoidance behaviours also eliminate practice. Without practice we cannot gain mastery, and without mastery confidence is less likely to rise.
Our attempts to avoid our anxiety through safety and avoidance behaviours will ultimately only magnify and reinforce it to the level of phobia. At this level, our nervous system hyperarousal is so high when we are faced with the situation, event, person, place or thing which we have conditioned ourselves to fear and avoid, that we lose all perspective and rational thought. We also go to such extreme lengths to persistently avoid this situation, event, person, place or thing, so much so that our fear and anxiety significantly interferes with other areas of our life – e.g., even when we are removed from the situation, event, person, place or thing, there is always an undercurrent of fear and lack of personal power/confidence/control.
Instead, we must learn to engage with those situations, events, persons, places or things authentically through the process of exposure.
TREATING UNWANTED INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS LIKE THEY MEAN SOMETHING/ARE IMPORTANT: Everyone gets unwanted intrusive thoughts from time to time. We are particularly vulnerable to them when our anxiety is heightened. This is because in high states of anxiety our primitive ‘freeze, fight or flee’ survival stress response is continually being triggered which causes us to have negative/dark thoughts – it does this because it wants to trick us in to feeling like we need to run or fight to escape and what better way to do this than to give you thoughts that make you feel like the present situation is frightening and unsafe. Instead, we must deal with unwanted intrusive thoughts by not giving them any attention or attaching any meaning or importance to them and simply seeing them for what they are – just harmless thoughts that need to be left alone to drift out of our mind again in their own time.
TRYING TO PUSH UNWANTED INTRUSIVE THOUGHTS AWAY: An unwanted intrusive thought starts as just an ordinary harmless thought, as bizarre, repugnant, violent, crazy, frightening or disturbing as it might be. Rather than letting this thought drift out of our mind in its own time, believing that the thought is harmful or real, or worrying/getting frightened about it and trying to reject or fight it stops it from passing and so it gets stuck. After time, the thought attracts our anxious attention more and more and gets stuck more and more, triggering our body’s primitive ‘freeze, fight or flee’ stress response even more, until the thought arrives with a whoosh that feels awful, disgusting, dreaded, and/or dangerous. This whoosh can feel like an impulse to perform the unwanted action that our intrusive thoughts are related to or like the unwanted event our thoughts are related to are actually about to happen. This whoosh is created by our body’s primitive ‘freeze, flight or flee’ survival stress response – it is the result of chemicals and hormones being released into our body to trick us in to running or fighting to escape, that is all. We may try to push unwanted intrusive thoughts away in a whole host of ways, including by not trying to think about them, trying to distract ourselves from them, or by coming up with rituals and behaviours to neutralise them or by finding ways to reassure ourselves that they are not true. Instead, we need to understand that thoughts are just thoughts and nothing more and they stick because of the energy we expend in fighting them, so we learn to stop giving them energy by letting them be and letting them drift away in their own time.
© Amanda Morgan
Amanda Morgan is a counsellor practising in Cambridgeshire, Cambridge and Newmarket (Suffolk). She is passionate about supporting adults and young people (16+) to recover from low mood, anxiety and low self-esteem and enjoys writing about these subject areas.