There are a lot of anxiety myths out there. In my next 2 blog posts, I dispel 7 of them — and give you better solutions for dealing with excessive worry or anxiety.
Myth: Anxiety is bad.
Anyone who’s been reading my stuff knows the answer to this one. False!
Anxiety is neither good nor bad. It’s just a feeling. The physical sensations that come with it can be uncomfortable — the stomach clenching, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms — but they’re nothing more than sensations
Functionally, anxiety exists really to keep us alive, as it alerts us to danger. And even in smaller doses, it’s really helpful—that’s what helps me reach deadlines, get shit done, etc.
Myth: Learning coping skills is the way to treat anxiety.
Here’s the deal.
Most coping skills like breathing, relaxation, exercise, medications, calling a friend, or going for a walk are just teaching you that you need to do something in order to tolerate your anxious thoughts or feelings. That’s anxiety avoidance. And you’re training your brain to associate those things as things you do when you’re feeling shitty. Remember your brain learns by association; is that the association you want to be making?
What you need to learn is that you can handle being anxious and that the feelings are temporary. The less you respond, the faster they will pass. We want to accept the presence of the thoughts and feelings without engaging in their content.
Myth: Facing your fears is the way to treat anxiety.
This is tricky.
Yes, facing your fears — and all the stuff you’ve been avoiding — is important. BUT you need to do it WITHOUT safety behaviors.
Let’s say you’ve been avoiding highway driving. You won’t move forward if you agree to drive on the highway, but you’re praying the whole time you don’t get into an accident. Then you’ll be able to drive so long as you can pray. Put another way, no contingent living. I can do X IF I do Y.
You want to be able to drive on the highway (or whatever it is) AND accept the risks (however low) of whatever happening. Those risks (the uncertainty! the possibilities!) are what make it so difficult.
In order to truly move forward, you must work on accepting that the world is full of risks. You can spend your time and energy investing in trying to reduce your chances to zero, which is impossible, or accept the possibility and start living.
It’s your choice.
Myth: If something makes you anxious, just avoid it.
Intuitively this makes sense, right? Why would I do something that makes me feel scared or stop doing something that makes me feel better? Good question.
Avoiding works in the short term—it gives you a hit of relief but how are you training your brain to react the next time you see (or think) about that situation?
You’re training your brain to think that situation is dangerous and, when it does, it will continue to send out the false alarm signals (adrenaline, cortisol) that you dread. And the cycle continues. Our brains will start detecting signs of anything that looks like the situation and you’ll find you’re getting more anxious more often.
When you avoid, you’re training your brain to be more anxious, not less, in the long run.
Stay tuned next week to read the final 4!