The Paradox of Control
Anxiety is no picnic. Thus, it is not surprising that I hear from a lot of people that they need anxiety to stop, and feel a strong desire to control it. However, there is a problem with this approach. The paradox of trying to control anxiety is that this often makes the anxiety stronger and more intense.
A helpful metaphor is thinking about anxiety like it is quicksand. The more one struggles and fights with it, the deeper one sinks into it.
Something makes you anxious. Maybe your boss said something critical or you had to leave an argument with your partner unresolved. You realize you’re anxious and start to fight with that thought.
“Oh no! I’m anxious again. This is bad. I need to get rid of this….”
“Why isn’t it going away?! What’s wrong with me?! Why do I always get anxious?!”
“How am I going to live the rest of my life like this? This is awful..I can’t stand this!”
In this example, the attempt to fight the thoughts inadvertently caused the person to sink deeper into them.
“Just Don’t Think About it” Doesn’t work
One way people try to control anxiety, and are often ill-advised by other people to try to manage anxiety, is to “just stop thinking about it.”
However, the truth about thought suppression is that it, in most cases, just doesn’t work. A famous research study called the “white bear experiment” investigated what happens when you instruct people to not to think about a white bear. Guess what they thought about? A white bear.
If you find that “just not thinking about it” doesn’t work for you, this isn’t a sign of mental weakness, it’s science. Instead, it can be helpful to talk about your thoughts and find other ways to view them.
Avoiding it doesn’t work
Another way people try to control anxiety is to stay away from whatever is causing them anxiety. Socially anxious people avoid social events. People with a phobia of dogs stay away from dogs. People who experienced a panic attack avoid going to places where they had a panic attack before. Avoidance can also look like trying to get away from worries through the use of substances and distractions.
The problem with this approach is that it maintains the idea that whatever you are afraid of is in fact unsafe, and/or maintains the idea that you are unable to tolerate whatever anxiety may arise through being around what you fear.
The old adage “face your fears” holds merit. If you can come face to face with what you fear and see that either whatever you are afraid of did not occur or something you were afraid of occurred but you were able to handle it, you will feel empowered and less limited by your anxiety.
An alternative to control…
An alternative to the goal of controlling anxiety is to accept it. It is natural that there are aspects of life that will give rise to anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean you need to love or desire anxiety, but rather to find a way for anxiety to be less intimidating and hold less power in your life.
Going back to the earlier example, here’s what might happen if the person were to respond to their anxious thoughts with acceptance rather than a fight.
“I am noticing that I feel anxious. It’s ok. This is just anxiety.”
“I have experienced this before and survived it, I am willing to tolerate this feeling. It won’t last forever.”
“Let’s focus on breathing and relaxing my body instead of fighting.”
When accepting anxiety, sometimes anxiety paradoxically comes down. However, this is a byproduct of acceptance rather than the goal.
Another helpful metaphor can be to think of anxiety like a bully that wants to get a rise out of you. Once it sees that you don’t really care that it came around, and that you are able to ignore the mean things it says, you gain more power while its power and influence diminishes.
Spending time and energy fighting anxiety can take you away from focusing on what you really care about in your life. Learning how to drop this fight can free you up to focus on your higher values and goals.
A Final Word
If you are struggling with fighting with anxiety and want to learn how to make peace with it instead, please feel free to reach out for a free initial consult.