Anxiety about Anxiety
by Shlomo Radcliffe, MACP, RP
For many people, anxiety can be a paralyzing or highly distressing experience. It is common to feel anxious when trying out new experiences, encountering difficult situations, or in the midst of uncertain circumstances such as financial stress or global hardship.
The thing about these wonderful brains we have though?
They do not require us to have an actual difficulty or situation in order for them to produce full-blown anxiety, panic, and racing thoughts.
In fact, some people’s experience with anxiety is primarily anxiety about their anxiety. This is true, especially in cases where someone may have felt the significant impact anxiety has had on their life. For example, if you’ve struggled with social anxiety you might become acutely aware of how anxiety impacts your ability to engage in social situations. When anxiety shows up, your throat might tighten up, you may find yourself stuttering, you may blush awkwardly in front of others, you may experience racing thoughts, your mind may blank, and you may even feel a sense of dizziness, ‘weirdness’, or think that you are going crazy. All of which - without knowledge or training in how to deal with these experiences - can make you really dread the experience of anxiety itself. You might think to yourself, “If only this stupid anxiety stopped showing up, I’d be able to go to more social events.” while being ever on the look-out for anxiety symptoms to show up.
The anxiety cycle
It makes sense - if anxiety is perceived to be a cause of your problems, then we develop anxiety about our anxiety. Unfortunately, as you may know only too well, this kind of worry only worsens our anxiety symptoms. The more we are on-guard for the presence of anxiety, the more attention we are placing on the entire anxiety experience and the less we find ourselves able to focus on what’s really important to us in our lives.
Ignore the Fly
So, what are we supposed to do when find ourselves dealing with anxiety about anxiety? It’s simple, but not easy: we need to learn to drop the struggle with anxiety. The more anxiety is our enemy the longer it sticks around. The more you pay attention to how annoying a fly trapped in your house is, the more you’ll be stuck chasing the fly and missing out on whatever might matter more to you in that moment, be it, work, school, family time, or Obi-Wan Kenobi (or Ozark, or Call of Duty, or some David Attenborough documentary, or whatever it is that you’d like to do when you’re taking it easy!). Just as giving up on getting rid of the fly is more likely to help you actually enjoy the time you have available to you, so too is dropping the struggle with anxiety likely to free you up for whatever you’d like to focus on. Of course, giving up on getting rid of the fly does not mean that we are stuck with experiencing the buzzing of its wings forever - flies come and go, as does anxiety when we learn to give it the space it needs to do so. While this idea is simple in concept, psychotherapeutic approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and Exposure Therapy can provide you with a structured and clear plan for getting there.
If you’re struggling with anxiety about anxiety and would like some support, feel free to reach out to one of our therapists today. We’d be happy to chat about what’s going on for you, how we can help, and set a plan for taking power away from anxiety, while moving you back in the driver’s seat of your life.