There are a lot of anxiety myths out there. In my last blog post, I dispelled 3 of them. Here are the final 4.
Myth: Thought stopping (or replacing, suppressing) is an effective anxiety management technique.
I think these were techniques used in the 80’s or sometime, because I still get the random client who has been told to replace her anxious thoughts with calm ones.
I wish it were that simple.
Any time you try to resist, change, stop, or control your thoughts or feelings, they are going to come back stronger. Period. Full stop.
Myth: Understanding the “root cause” of your anxiety is important.
I’m sure insight has a place in the therapeutic world — I’m just not sure it’s in anxiety treatment.
Nevertheless, I hear so many people wanting to understand the “root cause,” as if there is just one cause. If someone can find it, let me know. What’s more useful in my opinion is thinking about what triggers the anxiety and its maintaining factors: what’s the gas for your fire?
Myth: “I’m not anxious. I just like to have everything scheduled and planned out.”
Who knows if this person is anxious, organized or what? You can’t diagnose on this statement alone. To understand what it COULD be (and diagnosis is much more complicated than looking at one sentence), think function of the behavior.
If they’re scheduling and planning because they’re scared the other person may not have fun or think they’re lame for picking bad spots, that sounds like someone who’s struggling with uncertainty. If it’s someone who thinks life needs to be organized and planned down to the second, because that’s “just how I like them,” that sounds like more of a preference than someone who is anxious.
Think function of the behavior.
If you smell trouble with uncertainty, get suspicious of anxiety.
Bonus: This last misconception is similar to one that plagues the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) community: “I’m so obsessed with organizing — I must have OCD” (cue Khloe Kardashian controversy).
This always annoys me.
Again, it’s all about the function of the behavior — is it driven by getting rid of uncertainty (or trying to avoid something?) or is it driven by something else like a simple preference?
Myth: If I have a “bad thought,” it must mean something.
It means you’re having a distressing thought in this moment. Nothing more.
It doesn’t mean anything about your character, identity, or likelihood of acting on it. Generally, when people refer to “bad thoughts,” they’re talking about “intrusive thoughts.” Intrusive thoughts can be violent, sexual, religious, existential, or immoral thoughts that come out of nowhere, are distressing, antithetical to who you are, followed by a swoosh or a woosh of sensations and tend to get stuck.
What makes the thought stick is our response to it. When we don’t know what it is, we respond with panic. We try to figure out what it means, why it’s there (and all the judgement about it being there) and why I’m a terrible, worthless person for thinking it?!
EVERYONE experiences intrusive thoughts. Everyone. How we want to respond is “I’m aware I’m having a distressing thought right now.” The less you engage with the thought, the better.
I do want to disclaim this one a bit, because — like everything in mental health — I don’t want to simplify to the point of misconstruing. People with intrusive thoughts are terrified by the thoughts. This differentiates them from someone who is more likely to act on them.
As always, my articles aren’t meant to diagnose anything. They’re here to give information for educational purposes. If you’re having intrusive thoughts that are causing you concern, please contact your mental health provider. (If you’re in Ohio, that could be me.)