Got Anxiety? Understanding your relationship with anxiety
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
Each day, we engage in many different relationships; those with family members, co-workers, friends, etc. Within our clinical practice, there is a question we ask every patient we treat for their anxiety condition — “Can you personify the relationship you have with your anxiety condition?”
Our question is typically answered with a question — “Not sure what you mean, I guess I’ll need to think about it?” That’s exactly what we want them to do — think about how they think.
In other words, we want our patients to realize that they DO in fact have a relationship with anxiety, just like any other relationship in their life, and to gain more insight with respect to how that relationship operates.
If it’s easy for you to describe a relationship with someone you have known for most of your life, then why is it so difficult to explain your relationship with anxiety?
Maybe it’s because you do not realize that you actually have a “relationship” with anxiety. Those with Social Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Chronic Worry, etc., live with this condition on a daily basis, just as they do living with a spouse, roommate, etc.
Once this concept is better understood, the question becomes easier to answer. Seen below, are the most common responses we receive from those who are asked to “personify” the relationship they have with their anxiety: “My anxiety…
Tells me which activities I can and cannot take part in;
Dictates that I avoid anything which makes me anxious;
Reminds me if I am not 100% certain, something bad is going to happen;
Demands that I need to always resist my feelings of anxiety;
Keeps telling me I am worthless, due to my self-doubt and indecisiveness.”
How would you best describe (personify) the anxiety YOU live with on a daily basis? If your answers are in any way similar to those seen above, in our opinion, this sounds like a relationship designed to keep you “hostage.”
In other words, you appear to be involved in an abusive relationship! Why do you keep following anxiety’s rules and allow yourself to be treated in such a manner? Do you want to end this relationship, and if so, how is that going to happen?
How we view our world is like the window we look through each morning upon awakening — it’s our frame of reference; the manner in which we view ourselves and our perceptions of others. In essence, it’s the very core of us.
During the first 15-18 years of our life, we begin to develop a set of “core beliefs,” i.e. beliefs about how we interpret, appraise and attempt to better understand daily interactions we have with our parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and friends.
Throughout this process, we cultivate beliefs concerning concepts such as fairness, trust, vulnerability, abandonment, competency, etc.
The two primary core beliefs endorsed by those who live with chronic worry, consist of (1) “overestimating the probability of danger (threat),” and (2) an “intolerance for uncertainty.”
Chronic worriers overestimate the likelihood of encountering danger, as well as the severity of outcomes associated with the anticipated threat. They also tend to significantly underestimate their PERCEIVED ability to effectively handle situations involving uncertain outcomes, thus creating a sense of vulnerability, which then triggers anxiety.
As a result of these core beliefs, worriers live by the motto, “it is always best to error on the side of caution” (i.e. better to be safe than sorry).
Due to this manner of thinking, worriers begin to develop a unique relationship with their anxiety; finding themselves listening to, and consistently complying with, the “rules of anxiety,” a set of rules which ultimately serve to maintain their anxious arousal.
CHANGE YOUR RELATIONSHIP
As is the case when living in any abusive relationship, a person needs to ask the question — “when is enough, enough?”
The initial step for ending any abusive relationship, is to first understand the rules you are following, and then subsequently make the decision that these rules are preventing you from doing what truly makes you happy.
The key to changing the relationship you have with your anxiety is to begin implementing the following strategies:
Create a new set of rules to follow. Rule No. 1: Uncertainty does NOT signal threat; it just feels uncomfortable.
Toss out the playbook anxiety wants you to follow — it’s NOT helping!
Strengthen your tolerance level for situations involving uncertain outcomes.
Be mindful of your core beliefs, what triggers them, and how you tend to think and behave once these beliefs surface.
Lower the meaningfulness (importance) regarding the content of your worry — it’s NOT about the CONTENT; feeling uncertain triggers your worry.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.