Why Won’t My Anxiety Go Away?

If you struggle with anxiety, you have likely made some attempt to figure out how to get it to go away. Unfortunately, you may also be frustrated and even hopeless that your attempts have not been effective in eliminating anxiety from your life. Whether you’ve read self-help books or gone to therapy, you may have found some tips and techniques to be helpful in the short-term. However, in the long-term anxiety continues to play a role in your life. If this sounds like you, we have some important education to share as well as research-supported advice for reducing the negative impact anxiety has on your life.

Some anxiety is normal. The goal is not to get ALL anxiety to go away.

Anxiety is a basic, essential human emotion. Asking for a therapist to help you eliminate anxiety is much like asking a doctor to help you eliminate the beating of your heart. Your body is designed to experience emotions. Without anxiety, humans would have likely gone extinct a very long time ago.

Anxiety is our body and mind’s way of trying to keep us safe.

Anxiety is a motivator. If you are taking a hike through the woods, come across a bear, and don’t experience anxiety, you wouldn’t be motivated to run, and would be eaten. If you have an important test coming up and don’t experience anxiety, you may not be motivated to study, leaving yourself vulnerable to failure.

Sometimes anxiety does TOO GOOD of a job trying to protect us and sends false alarms.

You may be saying to yourself, “Yeah, I can see how anxiety might be helpful in those situations, but my anxiety happens for no reason.” Although it is impossible to identify (with complete certainty) why you started becoming unnecessarily anxious about the things that brought you to therapy, self-help books, and/or this blog post, we do know how your anxiety intensifies and how it is maintained in the long-term.

Anxiety disorders and “false alarms” are maintained and intensified by avoidance.

Anything you do to try to avoid or eliminate anxiety and uncertainty when they show up guarantees that you will experience more anxiety about the thing you are avoiding in the future. The opposite is also true. Anything you do to approach the things that make you anxious and accept uncertainties increases the odds that you will experience less anxiety about them in the future.

Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you are afraid of public speaking. Your boss emails you and asks you to present on a topic in the next company meeting. Immediately upon reading this email, anxiety and uncertainty about the possibility of making a fool of yourself sets in. In response to this anxiety, you begin analyzing ways you can avoid making a fool of yourself. You think, “I’m going to write out a script of exactly what I plan to say. That way, if I get anxious and forget what I’m saying, I have something to fall back on. I’m also going to practice my presentation over and over so I don’t get anxious in the meeting. Practice makes perfect, right?” For now, you feel a little more certain that your worst fears won’t come true and you feel a bit more relaxed.

If you avoid and remain alive, your brain learns anxiety is necessary.

Your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for anxiety, judges the effectiveness of the anxiety it sends based on whether or not it keeps you alive. If your amygdala could talk, this is the conversation it would have with itself in the previous example:

“I identified the possibility that you could make a fool of yourself. That is dangerous. To protect you from that danger, I sent you anxiety in hopes that you would do something to minimize that threat. You analyzed ways of avoiding making a fool out of yourself. After doing a check of your body and your environment, I’ve determined that you are safe. Therefore, the anxiety I sent you was a success! Just to make sure I continue doing my job in the future, I will send you more anxiety next time there is any chance that you could make a fool of yourself.” 

Understanding the information in this blog and how your anxiety works is not enough.

You may have spent a good deal of time and money trying to figure out why you get anxious about the things you get anxious about. If you think you have found an answer to why your anxiety started in the first place, you may have also determined that the things making you anxious aren’t actually dangerous. However, for whatever reason, you still get anxious about them and they still cause you to worry.

People ultimately heal from anxiety disorders through changing behavior.

This is because the part of your brain responsible for anxiety, your amygdala, is metaphorically deaf. It does not learn through logic, reason, and understanding. It only learns through experience. Understanding that your worst fears are unlikely to come true is only helpful if that understanding leads you to change what you DO when you encounter those fears.

Approaching your fears teaches your mind that anxiety is an unnecessary response.

If your brain sends you anxiety to motivate you to keep yourself safe, imagine what would happen over time if you decided to disobey what your anxiety is urging you to do. Luckily, your amygdala is capable of learning, adapting, and changing through experience. Therefore, if it identifies an uncertainty or threat, sends you anxiety about it, you decide to do nothing about that uncertainty and approach the threat, and you don’t die, your amygdala must make an adjustment. If you consistently do nothing about uncertainties that arise and approach your fears despite your anxiety, your amygdala learns through experience that uncertainty and the things you fear are not actually dangerous. Then, and only then, does it stop sending you unnecessary anxiety as it has learned that there is no need for protection in situations that don’t pose an actual threat.

Let’s return to our example.

Imagine what it would look like to disobey anxiety’s urge in the previous example. Your mind is saying, “You could make a fool of yourself in front of your whole company! That is dangerous. We need to come up with a plan to prevent this from happening.” Instead of writing out a script for your presentation and practicing it over and over, what if you said to yourself, “Yep, that’s a possibility” and then continued on with whatever you were doing before that thought entered your head? In that moment, your amygdala would do a scan of your body and ask, “Are you alive?” Of course, the answer is yes. If you continued this approach to your fears and uncertainties consistently and remained alive, your mind would have to make an adjustment. The conversation it would metaphorically have with itself it as follows:

“I identified the possibility that you could make a fool of yourself. I believed that would be dangerous. To protect you from that outcome, I sent you anxiety in hopes that you would do something to minimize the threat. You continually are doing nothing to protect yourself and you are alive. The possibility of making a fool of yourself (and even making mistakes sometimes) must not be as dangerous as I thought. Therefore, I guess I don’t need to send you unnecessary amounts of anxiety about it.”

That is how anxiety gets better in the long-run.

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