Changing Your Relationship with Anxiety Part 2: Ineffective Ways We Respond to Anxiety
There are a lot of ways that we respond to anxiety that are ineffective or even counterproductive. The most common response to anxiety is avoidance. People try to avoid things or situations that make them anxious in order to avoid the discomfort of anxiousness.
Two things happen when we avoid. One is that we start to decrease our comfort zone and limit the things we feel like we are able to do. For example, individuals will quit a certain job, school or activity so they can try to create an environment with the least amount of anxiety. The second thing that happens when we avoid is that we rob the amygdala of the opportunity to learn. Exposure/experience is the way to teach our amygdala that we don’t need to be afraid in certain situations. For example, if I feel anxious at school and continue to miss or leave early, I will likely continue to strengthen the relationship between fear and school. However, if I can continue to go to school and tolerate the anxiety, eventually I am able to teach my amygdala to not “fear” school and the anxiety response should lessen.
When we avoid we rob the amygdala of the opportunity to learn.
Another ineffective response is to fight against anxiety. When our amygdala gets activated, its instinct is to want to make that feeling go away quickly. When we are unable to do that, we create more anxiety because our amygdala still believes that we are not safe. The alternative is to accept the presence of anxiety and respond in ways that will slow the anxiety response down and/or decrease in intensity.
Reassurance seeking is a common behavior for those that are anxious. You may seek reassurance by constantly asking others around you if you are ok, or you may over-research, trying to find confirmation about something you may fear. In children this can look like asking the parent the same questions over and over again and the answer never seems to satisfy them. For adults, it may be endless hours researching something that of which they are uncertain about or afraid.
Some individuals will attempt to “keep their mind busy” so as to not let in anxious thoughts. People may try to accomplish this by constant socializing or time on electronics and social media. Other ineffective responses include persistent worry, ruminating and trying to find certainty.
If any of this sounds a bit like you, please know that you are not alone. Fear is a deeply challenging emotion and can take a lot of practice to navigate.
Stay tuned for part 3 when we consider healthy ways to respond to anxiety.