Anxiety’s Secret Rules: Are you following them?

Do you have an anxiety disorder? If you do, that means that your body responds as if it is in danger in situations where most would agree danger is unlikely.

Once the connection (rather misconnection) has been made between a situation and danger (for example, flying and crashing) then Anxiety steps in to save the day, despite the fact that the day doesn’t really need saving.

Be warned, Anxiety will say anything it has to say in order to get you away from situations that it thinks are dangerous. Anxiety will try to convince you to follow certain “Rules” in order to be safe, but following those rules is what gives Anxiety its power over you.

If you understand Anxiety’s rules, you can choose to follow “Counter-Strategies” in order to loosen Anxiety’s grip on you.

Here are Anxiety’s rules. Are you being tricked into following them? You decide.

Scary thoughts should be taken 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).

Examples: “Because you had that thought, it must be true…if you have a violent thought you are a violent person and should be very careful…if you think a bad thought while entering a room you need to go out and come back in thinking only good thoughts…if you have the thought that people don’t like you then you better leave the party…if you have the thought that the plane will crash you better grip the armrests tightly…if you have the thought that you are dying during a panic attack you better flee the situation!”

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.

You must be absolutely certain!

The Trick: Anxiety wants to convince you that it is extremely important (and possible) to get 100% 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. The more you strive for absolute certainty, the worse you feel.

Examples: “If you can’t get certainty that you are illness-free then you must really be sick…Only talk to people you are absolutely certain won’t reject you…You must have no doubts whatsoever about (sexual orientation, safety of an activity, what happens after you die, your family’s safety)…If you don’t know exactly what’s going to be on the test then you’re bound to fail!”

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 positive…If I seek out uncertainty, rather than avoid it, I can build up my uncertainty-tolerance.

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. The problem is that if you do not face normal life discomfort then your ability to tolerate discomfort can shrink, making you even more vulnerable to Anxiety.

Examples: “This panic attack is going to (kill you, suffocate you, make you go insane, make you pass out, damage your heart, give you a stroke)…If you can’t be comfortable at the party then you should not go at all…You should wait until you are completely anxiety-free before you (attend classes, get a job, have children, date, call a friend)…You must get comfortable, or else!”

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.

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.

Examples: “Flying feels so unsafe so the plane is likely to crash…Because this panic attack feels dangerous, you’d better get to the ER…Because you feel like the elevator will get stuck and you won’t get enough air, you’d better take the stairs…Because you feel contaminated, you’d better go wash your hands…Because they don’t feel clean enough, you’d better wash again until it feels 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…I can accept that this feels dangerous without overreacting.

Perfection should be achieved!

The Trick: Anxiety wants you to believe that if you just try harder, you can achieve perfection. The problem is that we live in an imperfect world where perfection only exists in fairy tales. Striving for perfection, consequently, is a frustrating and stressful way of life. When you strive for perfection, you fail (by definition) 100% of the time.

Examples: “Your body must be perfectly symptom-free…Your health better be perfect…You have to make a perfect impression at the party or you will be rejected…Your speech must be flawless…You must be perfectly certain that something is safe…If you don’t have 100% control then all hope is lost…You need to score a perfect score on your test…You need to do your rituals flawlessly…You need to (look, act, feel) perfect, no flaws are allowed!”

Counter-Strategy: Nothing or no one is perfect. Trying to be or feel perfect always fails and helps only Anxiety! Instead of demanding perfection of myself, I’ll choose to seek out and accept imperfections!

Anxious thoughts and feelings should be struggled against!

The Trick: Anxiety wants you to struggle against it. However, when you struggle against Anxiety it often gets stronger (imagine the futility of struggling to fall asleep when you are worried about insomnia). Anxiety does not want you to face and experience it willingly. Anxiety does not want you to know that acceptance is often the quickest and most effective route to weakening it.

 Examples: “You’d better fight off these thoughts and feelings right now! You’d better struggle to get away from me!”

Counter-Strategy: Bring it on! Fighting discomfort only helps Anxiety in the long run…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 and choose to pursue my own goals.”

Now that you are aware of Anxiety’s rules, 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.  What will you decide?

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.