Your anxiety is not the problem: What you DO when you’re anxious is the problem

At some point in therapy, usually during our first session, almost all of my clients ask me this question:

“How did I get this anxiety problem? What started it?”

With most people, my honest answer is that I don’t know…at least, I don’t know how the anxiety about their particular issue started.  I can sometimes guess, but most of the time, it’s just not possible to know how it started without a time machine.

But I can definitely tell them what is keeping it going and why it hasn’t gotten better on its own: it’s because of what they do when they are anxious.

When most people feel anxious, they do a very understandable thing: they do something to try and make themselves feel better, to try and reduce the anxiety.  Anxiety is a very uncomfortable, often painful feeling, so they try to do something to get rid of it.  In other words, they try to avoid or escape the anxiety in some way.

In the short-term, this sometimes works: you might find ways to reduce your anxiety for a little while.

You can leave the situation that is triggering the anxiety.  You can try to “think positively” and reassure yourself that it’s going to be ok.  You can seek reassurance from loved ones that there’s nothing to worry about.  You can try to distract yourself and think about something else.

In the immediate short-term, these strategies can work. But there’s a problem with them, and it’s a big one:

The problem is that avoiding your anxiety in the short-term keeps it going in the long-term.

The more you make yourself feel better right now, the worse the anxiety will be later. You can probably identify with this: you’ve probably got all kinds of strategies you use to try to make yourself feel better when you’re anxious. Some might work for a little while, and some might not, but the point is that no matter how many times you make yourself feel better in the short-term, the anxiety always comes back again later.

After all, if the strategies you were using to reduce your anxiety worked in the long-term, then you probably wouldn’t be reading this right now.

The problem, however, isn’t that you don’t know the right method for reducing your anxiety, or that you’re not trying hard enough. The problem is an odd one:

The reason you can’t reduce your anxiety in the long-term is BECAUSE you’re trying to reduce your anxiety.

Avoidance of anxiety just does not work. But why?

It’s because when you do things to avoid anxiety, you prevent your brain from going through the natural process of learning that the things you’re anxious about are not actually dangerous.  Think of it this way:

Anxiety is a warning signal.  It’s a message your brain is sending to you, and the message is “This situation is dangerous! You should do something about it or you’ll get hurt!”

So right now, your brain assesses these situations and says “This is dangerous”, so it gives you anxiety to warn you and keep you safe.  And the only way to get it to look at the same situation and say “this is not dangerous” is to actually EXPERIENCE that it is not dangerous.

Basically, when you do something you are anxious about enough times, your brain gets used to it, decides it’s not dangerous, and the anxiety stops.

This is the basis for Exposure Therapy. But when you avoid, you prevent this whole process from happening. You prevent your brain from getting this experience, and therefore it never learns anything new. It keeps thinking the situation is dangerous and will keep giving you anxiety in that situation. That is why avoidance maintains anxiety in the long run.

That’s why I say that your anxiety is NOT a problem, but what you do when you’re anxious is the problem.

It’s because if you simply allowed yourself to feel anxious but did not avoid the anxiety and did not avoid the situation…eventually, you will get used to it and it will no longer make you anxious. But if there is any avoidance at all, this process is ruined and your anxiety will continue.

Which leads us to the interesting paradox about anxiety:

In the long-term, the only way to reduce anxiety is to stop trying to reduce anxiety.

Kinda weird, right?  But it’s true: if fighting it only makes it worse, then the solution is to stop fighting it.  It’s acceptance, and it really does work.

So the next time you feel anxious, remember: avoiding it will only make it worse.  Let the anxiety happen.  Don’t fight it, live your life in spite of it: do all the things you would be doing if you weren’t feeling anxious even though you are.  Eventually, it will get better this way.  And even if that takes some time, in the meantime, at least you’re not making it worse by avoiding.

Interested in learning some of the most common and most effective strategies I teach my clients for dealing with anxiety and worry? Check out my self-help video series, How to Stop Overanalyzing, with over 3 hours of content covering the skills I teach to almost all of my clients in the first 5 therapy sessions.

Dr. Stein About Dr. Stein

Dr. Michael Stein is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders and OCD. He is the founder and owner of Anxiety Solutions, a group private practice that serves clients with anxiety and OCD both online and at its offices in Denver, CO; Reno, NV; and Boise, ID. He is the author of the self-help video series, How To Stop Overanalyzing. He is passionate about both helping his own clients overcome anxiety and OCD and expanding access to quality care for these problems.

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