You’ve been lied to about anxiety: Why it gets worse when you try to feel better, and what you can do about it.

You’ve probably been through this before:  You’re feeling anxious.  You’re worrying about something that you know is irrational.  You tell yourself to stop thinking about it, but you can’t.  Then you get frustrated that you can’t make yourself stop thinking about it.    And the cycle continues.

You’re not alone.  My clients tell me this all the time.  

The problem is, you’ve been lied to about anxiety.  

We all have.  In our society, there is a belief and an expectation that you SHOULD be able to control your thoughts and your emotions.  Therefore, if you feel anxious, or you can’t stop worrying…it’s YOUR fault.  You must be doing something wrong if you can’t just stop thinking about it.

Well, this is just flat-out BS.  

The truth is that you have no control whatsoever over what thoughts pop into your head and what emotions you feel.  And when I say you, I mean everyone.  This is not a personal flaw of yours.  

If you can’t get yourself to “just stop worrying about it” when you feel anxious, it’s not that you’re doing it wrong.  Nor are you weak, crazy, stupid, or irrational.  

The reason you cannot just turn off your anxious mind is that you are trying to control something that you cannot control.

The strategy of control works in a lot of aspects of our lives, but not when it comes to our minds.  The way minds work is that the more you want to not think about something…the more you will think about it.  The more you want to not feel anxious…the more anxious you will feel.  

This is very easy to demonstrate.  Try this out: close your eyes and picture a pink elephant. Big floppy ears, long trunk, thick skin, huge feet…but colored hot pink.  Get a really vivid image in your mind of this pink elephant.  Once you’ve got that image, try to stop thinking about the pink elephant.  Try to think about anything BUT a pink elephant.  Whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant.  

Of course, what always happens is that when you try to stop thinking about a pink elephant, that’s exactly what you’ll think about.  You can try as hard as you want to stop thinking about it, but it’ll keep popping up.  

It’s the same with the things you worry about.  

Are you worried about your finances?  Try not to think about it, and that’s exactly what you’ll think about.  Are you afraid you might have cancer even though you know this is irrational?  Try not to think about it, and that’s all you’ll think about.  

Avoidance of thoughts and emotions does not work.  

In fact, the very reason your anxiety does not get better is BECAUSE  you try to get rid of it. That’s kind of a weird thought, right?  Obviously, anxiety sucks and you want to get rid of it.  Who could blame you?  But because you have no control over your feelings (no matter what anyone says), trying to rid yourself of anxiety only makes it worse.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Well if fighting my anxiety doesn’t work, am I just stuck with it forever?  What am I supposed to do instead?”

The answer is no, you are not stuck with it forever, because there is an alternative to trying to control anxiety: acceptance.

Acceptance is the opposite of control.  It means allowing yourself to think and feel whatever pops up, even when it is uncomfortable.  If trying to control anxious thoughts is the problem, then allowing yourself to think anxious thoughts must be the solution.  

This is probably a very different approach from the way you’ve been doing things.  It’s probably a very different approach from what people have told you to do before. But it works.  

When you stop trying to get rid of anxiety and anxious thoughts…they eventually subside on their own.  This is the power of acceptance.  

Try it with the pink elephant exercise again:  Get the image in your head of a pink elephant.  But then let your mind wander.  If it goes back to the pink elephant, that’s fine (remember, it does that whether you try to stop it or not), but just let your thoughts float around to whatever they naturally  want to focus on.  Eventually, the thoughts about the pink elephant will become fewer and further between and you’ll start thinking about other things.  

This works the same for your anxiety: instead of doing things to try to get rid of it, see what happens when you just allow yourself to feel anxious and go about your day anyway.

Stop spending your time fighting the anxiety and the anxious thoughts.  

Let them hang out with you while you go do something else.  

You’ll find that by taking this non-defensive stance, the anxiety eventually eases up without you doing anything about it.  It might take a while, but it will happen.  In the meantime, remember that in the short-term, both alternatives involve feeling the anxiety.  

In the short-term, it’s there if you try to get rid of it and it’s there if you stop trying to get rid of it. So why bother with all that effort?  It goes nowhere anyway, so what’s the point? Give yourself a break and try accepting the anxiety instead of fighting it. 

I see this work for people all the time, and I know it will work for you if you give it a chance.  

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.

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 office in Denver, CO. He is the author of the self-help video series, How To Stop Overanalyzing. He is one of Psychology Today's official expert contributors on anxiety and OCD and has also written for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. He has been featured/quoted in The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Denver Post, Bustle, PsychCentral, and more. " 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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