I always got funny looks from my therapy clients when I told them that they should stop trying so hard to be less anxious.
A mental health professional who specialized in treating anxiety disorders was telling his clients that being less anxious wasn’t really something they ought to strive for?
Well, what the hell am I paying you for, then?! was what most were too polite to say but clearly visible on their face.
To be clear, I did want my clients to feel less anxious. But it’s a strange paradox of anxiety that trying hard to be less anxious now usually has the side-effect of making you more anxious later.
Like trying to force yourself to fall asleep, frontal assaults on anxiety almost always backfire.
Trying to be less anxious teaches your mind to be anxious about being anxious
Deep inside your brain is a cluster of neurons that acts as your threat-detection system whose overarching goal is to keep you safe from death and terrible injury.
This inner threat-detection system has three main jobs:
- Vigilance. It’s constantly keeping an eye out for potential new threats and dangers.
- Battle Stations. If your threat detection system identifies something it thinks might be a threat, it sounds the alarm by releasing a little adrenaline and activating your sympathetic nervous system (i.e. your fight or flight response) so that you will be prepared to deal with the threat by fighting or fleeing.
- Feedback. Now, thankfully, our threat detection systems are humble enough to know that they don’t always know for sure if something is actually dangerous or just looks/feels that way—Is it a poisonous snake or just a fallen tree branch? So, after sounding the alarm on a potential threat, it watches how you respond to either confirm or deny that initial assessment. If you attack or run away from the potential threat, it’s going to assume its initial assessment was correct and classify that thing as a threat for the future. This means that the next time you encounter it, your threat detection system will give you an even stronger jolt of adrenaline to prepare you to deal with it. On the other hand, if you approach the potential threat, you might learn that it wasn’t actually dangerous after all, which will make you less fearful in the future.
To make all this a little more concrete, let’s use an example…
How to give yourself a hiking phobia
Suppose you’re out hiking in the woods. A little ways ahead of you on the trail you notice a dark squiggly shape.
Your threat detection system kicks in thinking, Hey, this could be a poisonous snake. So it releases a little adrenaline and revs up your fight or flight response a bit in case you need to make a quick getaway.
As a result of the adrenaline and general sympathetic nervous system response (increased heart rate, muscle tension, perspiration, etc.), plus some worries on your part (oh my God, if I got bitten by a poisonous snake out here I could die!), you find yourself feeling rather anxious. And understandably, you would prefer not to feel that way.
And what would be the quickest way to not feel so anxious anymore?
That’s right: avoid that potentially poisonous snake by turning around and heading back to the car.
But here’s the problem…
While you would undoubtedly feel less anxious right now if you immediately ran away, the more important question is this: What am I teaching my brain? Specifically, What am I teaching my brain’s threat detection system about the true threat potential of squiggly shadows while hiking?
By immediately avoiding that dark shadow, you’ve taught your brain that dark shadows while hiking are dangerous. And even though it led to some temporary anxiety relief in the moment, this will make you more anxious about hiking in the future.
For example: The next time someone suggests hiking, you’ll be more likely to remember that incident and feel nervous. Then, even if you do decide to go on the hike, your brain will be increasingly vigilant (which is stressful). And if you do see another dark squiggly line, it will release an even bigger adrenaline dump, making you feel even more anxious. As a result, you’ll feel an even bigger pull to immediately avoid the shadow and relieve your anxiety.
See where this is going?
Avoidance teaches your brain that something is dangerous.
Avoid something a lot and you’re teaching your brain that that thing is very dangerous.
Now, this is a good thing if that something is truly dangerous. If you try out a new hiking trail and it is literally infested with poisonous jumping vipers, avoiding that place is a good idea!
But here’s the thing…
There are lots of things in life that look and feel dangerous but aren’t.
Shadows, for example. Or sticks and branches. Both of which, by the way, are totally reasonable explanations for what that dark squiggly line you saw actually was.
But because you immediately avoided it (in order to get instant anxiety relief) you never gave your brain the opportunity to learn that dark shadows on the trail while hiking are often harmless things like shadows and branches.
On the other hand, let’s say that instead of immediately turning around and heading back to the car, you decided to move a little closer to the dark squiggly line so you could get a better look.
In the very short term, your anxiety is likely to go up a little because you’re moving toward this thing your brain just said might be dangerous. But like we just discussed, there’s a big potential benefit to this willingness to tolerate some anxiety in the moment: You give your brain the chance to learn that something that looked and felt dangerous was actually completely harmless (a fallen tree branch, for example).
And even if it was a snake, is that necessarily a danger to your survival? Most snakes are not super poisonous. And even if it was a poisonous snake, what are the odds that by getting a little bit closer, you were actually putting yourself at risk of being bitten?
Here’s the general takeaway:
Many things in modern life look and feel dangerous but aren’t actually a threat to your survival. But if you get in the habit of avoiding them, you’re teaching your brain that they are dangerous, which means your long-term anxiety will steadily increase.
Critically, this applies to worry and anxiety as much as dark shadows while hiking…
While uncomfortable, the emotion of anxiety isn’t actually dangerous. But if you get in the habit of reacting to it like it is—running away from it or “fighting” with it in an attempt to eliminate it—you’re going to train your brain’s threat detection system to see it as a danger.
So, while trying to get rid of anxiety or distract yourself from it feels good in the short-term, the long-term consequences are, paradoxically, ever-increasing anxiety about anxiety.
Like any addiction, short-term relief leads to long-term suffering.
How well-calibrated is your threat detection system?
Some amount of anxiety and worry is inevitable in life.
And there’s a good reason for this:
You want your brain’s threat detection system to be flexible.
New environments bring new forms of danger, so it’s good to be able to learn to be afraid of new things. For example: How dangerous are mosquitos? Well, if you live in Canada, probably not very dangerous. But if you all of a sudden moved to central Africa, mosquitos there are a lot more dangerous because they could carry Malaria.
Similarly, what used to be dangerous in one environment may no longer be dangerous in a new one, so you need to be able to unlearn fear of old things. If you moved from central Africa to Canada, it would make sense to unlearn some of your fear of mosquitos.
But the price of this flexible threat detection system is that we have to take responsibility for maintaining and upgrading it.
If you want to stay safe from true dangers, and not be overly anxious of pseudo-dangers, you have to make sure your threat detection system is well-calibrated.
Unfortunately, your brain’s threat detection doesn’t respond real well to human language. You can’t just tell your brain to be less afraid because it’s probably not really a snake. Your threat detection system only understands feedback in the form of behavior—what you do.
If you want your brain to be less afraid of something that isn’t actually dangerous—like shadows while hiking or even anxiety itself—you have to show it that by behaving accordingly.
And usually, this means being willing to approach things that look and feel dangerous but aren’t despite the fact that it’s scary and uncomfortable.
The best way to lower your anxiety is to be pro confidence
This brings us back to my initial comment to my therapy clients that trying to be less anxious is usually a bad idea.
Because even if you get some temporary relief, trying to be less anxious now usually teaches your brain to be irrationally afraid of things it shouldn’t—including anxiety itself—which creates a cycle of ever-increasing long term anxiety.
You can only lower your anxiety in the long run by being willing to have it in the short term.
When your behavior suggests that you’re not afraid of something (even if you do feel afraid of it), that sends the signal to your brain that that thing isn’t actually a threat. Which means despite your short term anxiety, you’re lowering your long term anxiety.
Everything I’ve described here is simply the psychological underpinnings of a concept we’re all very familiar with: confidence.
Confidence is the belief that you can do or experience something important despite feeling afraid.
And where does this confidence belief come from?
Confidence comes from practicing courage, which is the willingness to do the right thing even when it’s scary.
We all worry and feel anxious sometimes. But whether those initial worries and anxieties roll off our backs like raindrops or spiral into major storms comes down to how you respond to them.
To be free from anxiety you must be willing to have it.