Trying to Control Anxiety Will Always Backfire

My favorite part about being at the airport is getting to watch the planes take off.

That something so clunky-looking as a commercial airplane manages to get off the ground—much less stay up in the air for more than a few minutes—is breathtaking.

Watching those huge chunks of metal take off and land makes me feel like a little kid—that sense of awe and excitement… and reassurance.

It’s reassuring to know there are people out there who are so smart that they figured out a way to get a giant hunk of metal to fly thousands of miles through the air and at hundreds of miles per hour…. And safely carry hundreds of people along for the ride.

The airport reminds me what amazing problem-solvers we human beings can be.

Of course, I don’t spend that much time in airports—maybe a handful of times per year.

Where I do spend a lot of time is my office working as a psychologist and therapist. And this often gives a slightly less rosy picture of our capacity for problem-solving…

To a problem-solver, everything looks like a problem

As a society, there aren’t many things we value more than the ability to effectively solve problems.

So much so that many of us spend the first 20 to 30 years of our lives in school, essentially learning to be more effective problem solvers. And as we improve along the way, we get rewarded for all this problem-solving—parental praise for a good report card, admission to a prestigious university, a high-paying job.

As a result, this capacity to problem solve—to apply our intellectual and analytical powers to a difficult challenge—is so deeply baked into our very way of being that it’s hard to even notice how much we do it.

Problem-solving is our default. It’s the lens through which we increasingly view the world and everything in it.

In many ways, this is useful considering how many aspects of our lives benefit from effective problem-solving. After all, we don’t build bridges, cure smallpox, or get to the moon without huge expenditures of collective problem-solving.

But even though many things in life get worked out or improved with problem-solving, there’s a small class of things that are not amenable to analytical problem-solving. In fact, they’re often made worse by it.

Take difficulty falling asleep, a common problem increasing numbers of people struggle with.

When you’re laying in bed at night, sleepless, the harder you try to solve the problem of not sleeping, the more you activate your mind and arouse your body. But being mentally stimulated and physically aroused are the exact opposite conditions necessary for sleep.

This is the Sleep Effort Paradox: The harder you try to sleep the less likely you are to fall sleep.

While a useful tool, there’s obviously a danger in applying problem-solving too widely or automatically.

With sleep, the effort to control our sleep backfires because it produces arousal which directly inhibits sleep. A similar process happens when we try to control anxiety.

Too much problem-solving leads to anxiety

One of the most common ways we misapply our problem-solving abilities is by trying to control our emotions.

Because many emotions feel bad, we make the mistake of assuming they are bad, and therefore a problem to be solved. I see clients every day in my work as a therapist who asks me to teach them how to “control anxiety” or “manage my fear.”

This is understandable for all the reasons we talked about above: We’re trained to be problem solvers from birth. And something as painful as major anxiety, for example, seems like the perfect candidate for some big-time problem-solving.

But when it comes to problem-solving anxiety, the cure is worse than the condition.

As I’ve written about in Your Emotional Brain: A User’s Guide, when we treat our fear like a problem (i.e. trying to fix it, control it, manage it, solve it, etc), we train our brains to perceive our own fear as a genuine problem.

This means the next time we feel fear, our brain is going to remember and produce an even stronger fear response. And in response, we will try even harder to control and solve our ever-increasing levels of fear.

See where this is going?

Any attempt to problem solve, control, or otherwise “manage” our fear only makes it worse in the long run because it signals to our brain that its own fear response is dangerous.

Anxiety is what happens when the brain starts to fear itself.

You can’t control your way out of anxiety

Unfortunately, we get ourselves into chronic anxiety precisely because we’re such good problem solvers.

We’re so good at controlling and managing our external environment that we naturally start trying to control our internal environment. But this backfires because of our brain’s unique ability to observe itself and learn.

The only way out is to learn to become more mentally flexible and stop misapplying problem-solving and control to our own emotions like fear and anxiety.

There are two steps to doing this:

  1. Realize that problem solving is great for true problems but can be detrimental to things that look and feel like problems but aren’t. Trying to problem solve your anxiety makes as little sense as trying to problem solve going to the dentist or studying for an exam. Because while uncomfortable, these things are not actually problems. In fact, they’re good things that just happen to feel bad.
  2. Learn to simply observe your anxiety without doing anything about it. Watch it, notice it, be curious about it, but don’t try to do anything to it. You may find that it’s not as dangerous as you’ve led yourself (and your brain) to believe. This is difficult, of course, and takes practice. But if you want to re-train your brain to not be afraid of fear itself, you have to stop treating fear like a problem—trying to control, fix, and solve it.

Wrapping up

Mindfulness is the best way to cultivate cognitive flexibility, emotional balance, and ultimately, much lower levels of anxiety.

Here are a few good places to start:


Add Yours

This is great! I’ve started studying ACT and learned that so much of our struggle is amplified when we try to reduce it, prevent it, or remove it altogether. I’ve tried so many “tactics” to be happier and more confident. Nothing compares to mindfulness and just accepting what is knowing it doesn’t define me and that I can choose how I respond in a way that is most productive.

Thanks, Zach! Yeah, it’s counterintuitive but often there’s more power in doing nothing than trying to do something. Good luck with your studies!

Amazing article! This is exactly the way i feel. Just to be sure, when you say in the part “You Can’t Control Your Way Out of Anxiety” that “you have to stop treating fear like a problem — trying to control, fix, and solve it.”.

The second part of the phrase (trying to control, fix, and solve it) is what you must not do, right?

Thanks, Ludovic! And yes, you’re correct. If you think about it, we only fix/solve things that are problems. So when we take this attitude toward our own emotions (like anxiety) we’re subtly teaching our own brain that emotions are a problem to be solved. Which they’re not at all.

Thanks for the response!

This week, I’ve been noticing my anxiety and accepting it rather than fighting it. And I feel better already! I’m just not convinced at the moment that it will ever go away. Will I be ‘noticing’ it for the rest of my life?!

This is a great question! I’m curious about this too…you can take all these steps and notice anxiety and let it exist, but eventually, don’t you hit a breaking point? Anxiety is always going to be uncomfortable. But if you feel enough of it every day in waves for a long time, don’t you get sick of the feeling and just noticing it? Thanks!!

I could get a good insight into managing anxiety. The article is very useful & informative too. Thanks, for sharing Nick.

Very helpful read. I would love more and more of these! Scripts to read when an uncomfortable thought or feeling arises would be awesome.

Hi Nick!
Would it be considered avoiding or running from problems for my child who doesn’t want to go to her new school? She has had friendship issues at every school and has always struggled with anxiety and feeling like others don’t like her. We moved her schools last year as she begged us to. Now she is begging us to move her again stating that she doesn’t fit in and everyone hates her.
Is moving her again the wrong choice? Should we make her stick it out if she’s miserable? Should we wait and see how it goes and if it doesn’t go well move her? I am so heartbroken and torn! I want her to be happy but I also want to break this pattern of wanting to quit and leave when she is uncomfortable.

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