When you have an anxiety disorder your body responds as if it is in danger in situations where most would agree danger is unlikely. Once you are stuck in the phobic cycle your anxiety will pull every trick in the book to keep you “protected” from what it incorrectly identifies as a threat. If you fall for these tricks, you remain stuck.
If you understand anxiety’s tricks, however, you can follow counter-strategies in order to loosen its grip on you and get unstuck from the phobic cycle.
Here are anxiety’s tricks. Are you falling for them? You decide.
Trick 1: You must take scary thoughts seriously!
The Trick: Anxiety confuses thought with reality. It tries to convince you to behave differently based only on your thoughts (and not on logic).
- If I have a violent thought I am a violent person and should be very careful
- If I have the thought that people don’t like me then I better leave the party
- If I have the thought that the plane will crash I better grip the armrests tightly
- If I have the thought that I am dying during a panic attack I better flee the situation or get to an ER!
Counter-Strategy: I can accept all thoughts—they’re just thoughts and fighting them only helps Anxiety. I can choose to behave based on my goals and values and not my automatic thoughts.
Trick 2: You must be absolutely certain!
The Trick: Anxiety wants to convince you that it is extremely important (and possible) to get one-hundred percent certainty. Here’s the problem—it is impossible to get absolute certainty in our uncertain world. Anxiety says that if you are uncertain about something then the outcome will be bad. However, the more you strive for absolute certainty, the worse you feel.
- If I can’t get certainty that I am illness-free then I must really be sick and must keep checking the internet for a definitive answer
- I should only talk to people if I am absolutely certain they won’t reject me
- I must analyze until I know for sure (sexual orientation, safety of an activity, what happens after death, my family’s well-being)
- If I don’t know exactly what’s going to be on the test then I’m bound to fail and should worry and study excessively!
Counter-Strategy: Nothing is 100% certain…Trying to be absolutely certain only helps Anxiety… Uncertainty does not equal “bad”, it just means I don’t know…Just because I don’t know what the weather will be tomorrow, it doesn’t mean it will be a catastrophic hurricane…It’s normal and ok to be uncertain…Maybe the outcome will be positive…If I seek out uncertainty, rather than avoid it, I can build up my uncertainty-tolerance.
Trick 3: Discomfort is dangerous and should be avoided!
The Trick: Anxiety tries to convince you that anxious discomfort is damaging or unbearable and that you should focus on pursuing comfort, even at the expense of your life goals and freedom. However, if you do not face and embrace anxiety then your ability to tolerate discomfort can shrink, making the discomfort more painful.
- This panic attack is going to: kill me, suffocate me, make me go insane, make me pass out, damage my heart, give me a stroke—So, I better take steps to run from it!
- If I can’t be comfortable at the party then I should not go at all!
- I should wait until I am completely anxiety-free before go after what I want in life!
Counter-Strategy: Discomfort does not equal danger or damage, it’s just discomfort… Panic attacks are unpleasant, but not dangerous…It is ok to feel what I feel and choose what to do based on my life goals and values. I can build up my anxiety-tolerance if I seek out and accept uncomfortable situations and feelings.
Trick 4: If something feels dangerous then it is!
The Trick: This is called “emotional reasoning” and involves anxiety convincing you that something is dangerous based only upon your emotional reaction to the situation.
- Flying feels unsafe so the plane is likely to crash!
- Because this panic attack feels dangerous, I’d better get to the ER!
- Because I feel like the elevator will get stuck I’d better take the stairs!
- Because I feel contaminated, I’d better go wash my hands until they feel clean!
Counter-Strategy: That’s emotional reasoning…I won’t fall for that trick…Just because something feels dangerous doesn’t mean that it is dangerous…“Because it feels that way” is NOT real evidence that I need to base my life on… I can accept that this feels dangerous without overreacting…Feelings are not facts!
Trick 5: Anxious thoughts and feelings are the enemy and should be hated and struggled against!
The Trick: When you hate and struggle against anxiety it often gets stronger (Imagine the futility of struggling to fall asleep when you are worried about insomnia). Because you may get so invested in resisting your anxiety, you might not learn that acceptance is often the quickest and most effective route to weakening it.
- I’d better fight off these thoughts and feelings right now!
- I’d better struggle to get free and comfortable!
- If I just fight harder, I’ll force the anxiety away!
Counter-Strategy: Bring it on, Anxiety! Fighting only increases it…That which I resist, persists…This is just Another Freeing Growth Opportunity (AFGO)! I can let Anxiety be background noise or simply ‘leaves blowing in the wind’… I can accept the presence of anxiety right now and choose to pursue my own goals.
Trick 6: Your fear is your fault!
The Trick: As a last-ditch attempt to keep you safe and sound—away from your anxiety triggers—anxiety will attempt to demoralize you by blaming and shaming you. If anxiety shames you into giving up on breaking free from the phobic cycle then it thinks you are safer—when, in fact, you are just stuck!
- What a loser I am for feeling uncomfortable at the party—I should just leave!
- Other people don’t deal with this, why am I such a loser!
- I’m broken and hopeless—why even try!
Counter-Strategy: I didn’t choose this…It’s not my fault…I don’t have to buy into this negative judgment…I can keep moving forward, even if I don’t yet feel I can succeed…I don’t have to beat myself up, but I can learn from this experience and move forward…Don’t give up, put one foot in front of the other.
Now that you are aware of anxiety’s tricks, you have a choice. You can continue to follow them and remain stuck or you can choose to follow the counter-strategies and begin to regain control over your life. Which road will you follow?