Got Anxiety: Worrying — like fighting fire with gasoline
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
“The harder I try, the worse it gets.” Translation … “the strategies I have been using for years to deal with my worries, only seems to make them stick around.”
Individuals who suffer from anxiety continue to do so as a result of the methods they believe will serve as the solution to their worrisome thoughts (e.g., excessive reassurance-seeking, looking for certainty, etc.).
They keep asking, “What’s wrong with me?” Instead, the question should be, “What’s wrong with the techniques I have been using to deal with my constant worry?”
PUTTING OUT FIRES WITH GASOLINE
The metaphor “putting out fires with gasoline” is perfect for describing what people do when attempting to extinguish their worrisome thoughts. It talks about a person who is trying to help his neighbor stop a fire which is destroying his home.
Feeling anxious, the neighbor begins looking for a bucket filled with water. Upon spotting several buckets of liquid in the front yard, he frantically throws their contents onto the burning house.
Unfortunately, the buckets are filled with gasoline, not water. As a result, the flames become more intense; burning out of control. The harder the man tried to put out the fire, the situation continued to get worse, prompting him to throw even more gasoline onto the house.
Within minutes, the structure crumbled to the ground, leaving nothing but a mountain of debris covered in ashes.
WHEN SOLUTIONS BECOME THE PROBLEM
The metaphor discussed above helps us to better understand what fuels the worry engine. When people find themselves worrying, their default response is to engage in several forms of reassurance checking (internet research, asking friends for advice, etc.), as well as infinite attempts to discover 100% certainty regarding the content of their worry.
As their worries burn out of control, reassurance seeking efforts intensify, as well as efforts directed at lowering a sense of uncertainty. At the end of the day, the individual feels an even greater sense of uncertainty, leading to additional worry.
Exhausted, the worrier falls into bed at night, where the worrying process continues long into the night.
A COUNTERINTUITIVE DILEMMA
Worrying is a counterintuitive problem, a situation in which your gut reaction is to engage in behaviors designed to end worrisome thoughts, yet result in making the problem even worse.
The reason this happens is because whenever a person attempts to solve a counterintuitive problem with an intuitive approach, the situation will typically become much worse. If this sounds confusing, consider the following examples:
• Each night, we take our dog for a walk. Occasionally, he will escape from his leash and begin running toward other dogs. Our initial gut reaction is to call out his name and chase after him. As a result, he runs even faster. Four legs against two always wins. The solution is to run away from him (counterintuitive), let him chase us and then place the leash back on him.
• Last winter, we finally enjoyed a lot of snow. But with snow, comes icy road conditions. Occasionally, we found our car skidding toward some object. Steering the car away from the object (an initial gut reaction) isn’t going to work. A counterintuitive strategy, such as steering into the skid solves the problem.
• In the military, during an ambush, soldiers are trained to run TOWARD the enemy, not away from them, which is where the enemy plans to shoot next — counterintuitive.
THE RULE OF OPPOSITES
When anxious, the person’s first response is to try to not think about their worries, which will only increase the frequency of worry. It’s the same as pouring gasoline on a fire.
Worry is a counterintuitive problem that requires a counterintuitive approach. It is a process in which the brain makes up hypothetical, futuristic scenarios, associated with no control over the outcome.
Paying attention to the content of one’s worries, and interpreting them as a signal for imminent danger, serves to maintain the worry process. A counterintuitive approach would include:
• Upon awakening each morning in a state of anxious arousal (feeling a heavy sensation in one’s chest, being “on edge,” etc.), accept that you are having these uncomfortable sensations.
• Realize that a sense of uncertainty, not real danger, is triggering these feelings.
• Fight, and try harder, in your EXTERNAL world to get want you want. Do the opposite with your INTERNAL world (worrisome thoughts). Welcome the thoughts, STOP trying so hard to not feel anxious — you’re fighting to calm down!
• Your gut instinct is to handle your internal world the same as your external world; which will back-fire. Again, do the opposite. Treat your external world with intuitive strategies, and your internal world with a counterintuitive approach. If that feels awkward, it’s working!
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 anxietytreatmentinclinev illage.com to learn more.