The Great Anxiety Debate

What is The Great Anxiety Debate?

There is no debate about whether anxiety exists. It is real and we all have it to a certain degree at certain times. If we accept that fact, we can learn to cope effectively with it.

The Great Anxiety Debate is the conversations you have in your head with Anxiety. You try to convince Anxiety that something is safe and Anxiety tries to convince you that you are catastrophically wrong.

When you have an anxiety disorder, Anxiety can be very persuasive in trying to get you to do its bidding:

  • “Don’t touch that or you’ll get sick!”
  • “Don’t go to the party because everyone will reject you!”
  • “Don’t fly in the airplane or you’ll die in a crash!”

While it can be helpful at times to seek some basic information, (e.g. Flying is so safe that, statistically speaking, you’d have to fly every day for 16,000 years before being in a fatal plane crash) no amount of information will bring 100% certainty that something is safe (because occasionally a plane will crash). Anxiety knows this and will always try to throw that in your face in order to win The Great Anxiety Debate. It goes something like this:

Let’s say you have a social phobia and have been invited to a party. Anxiety will try to out-debate you in order to keep you home snug and safe (and lonely).

Anxiety: “You’d better stay home and not go to the party!”

You: “Why should I? I really want to make some more friends; maybe meet someone special.”

Anxiety: “Why you ask? Because no one will like you! They will think you are a pathetic, awkward, boring loser…that’s why not!”

You: “That won’t happen.”

Anxiety: “Are you sure?! Are you absolutely certain? If you are going to go, you have to be absolutely certain!”

You: “I guess I’m not really sure.”

Anxiety: “See, you aren’t even certain! What were you thinking?! If you go, they will all reject you. You won’t be able to show your face around any of those people ever again! You’ll be alone and depressed forever!!!”

You: “Maybe you’re right. Why take the chance? Let’s see what’s on TV.”

You can’t win The Great Anxiety Debate. It will always come down to you not being absolutely 100% certain of the safety of the situation. We can’t really know anything with 100% certainty. For example, are you 100% certain that you are really awake right now and that you are not just dreaming that you are reading this article? I know, I know…you are convinced that you are awake at this moment. Let me ask you this…when you were asleep last night and dreaming that you had shown up to work in your underwear, weren’t you certain at the time that it was really happening (that you were awake when you were really dreaming)? I thought so.

So we cannot be certain of safety. If your goal is 100% certainty of safety before facing your fears then Anxiety will always win. Let me suggest another strategy.

  • Take reasonable risks
  • Be willing to embrace uncertainty and discomfort
  • Observe the outcome
  • You choose your behaviors based on your goals and values—Anxiety doesn’t get a vote
  • Accept that you and your experiences cannot (and do not have to be) perfect

If you have an anxiety disorder, you are probably not a good judge of the safety of your feared situation. If you are terrified to fly, you probably have an exaggerated notion of the dangerousness of flying. Take yourself out of the equation. What do MOST people (who are not phobic of flying) think about the safety of flying? What would most people say about the likelihood of contracting HIV or hepatitis by using a public bathroom? Would most people agree that talking to an attractive person at a party (or even spilling a drink at a party) is a horribly risky thing to do?

While these activities could possibly result in a highly undesirable or traumatic outcome, most people would agree that it is unlikely. If the fear is of jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, most would agree that it might not be such a good idea—that it’s an unreasonable risk.

Still, no matter how overwhelming the evidence of safety is, there is no certainty. Although trying to think in terms of how most people would rate the safety of a situation can be initially helpful in determining a reasonable risk, endless reassurance-seeking (“Are you sure it’s safe…how do you know?…”) in order to chase certainty is not helpful.

Once you enter your feared situation, Anxiety will attempt to engage you in debate (“How do you know this is safe? It looks dangerous to me!”). Instead of participating in the debate, how about acknowledging and accepting Anxiety’s presence; both the “debate” thoughts and the uncomfortable feelings, and committing yourself to focusing on the present moment and observe for yourself whether the experience is truly catastrophic? The situation, your comfort level, and your performance don’t have to be perfect (in fact, THAT is a guarantee) but you can still move forward in the world and go after what you truly desire (taking that flight, talking to people at parties, giving that speech, and so on). Remember—Anxiety only gets to vote on your behaviors if you give it that power.

The next time you courageously choose to face your fears, you can be sure that Anxiety will be there desperately trying to engage you in debate. You can choose to let Anxiety debate all by itself. Let it be a one-sided conversation that you choose not to participate in nor even attend to. Go out and live your life and let Anxiety jabber on in the background without a debate partner.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.