Got Anxiety? Your relationship with anxiety and uncertainty
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
This is the first in a three-part series from the Barmanns about the relationship between anxiety and uncertainty. Look to SierraSun.com next week for part two.
Most people believe their anxiety is triggered by the CONTENT of their worrisome thoughts. Examples might include: relationships, career issues, finances, etc.
In addition, they are often confused when asked, “What factors do you believe are responsible for maintaining your chronic worry; i.e., what fuels your worry engine?” Answers to this question typically include the following:
“Worrying prevents bad things from occurring.”
“If I worry about the worst case scenario, I’ll be better prepared.”
“Worry represents a positive personality trait — being responsible.”
“Worrying helps me get things done.”
“Worry is the same as problem-solving.”
In previous articles, we outlined several reasons why the beliefs stated above are not only inaccurate, but also serve to strengthen the worry process. Although it’s important to learn methods for dismantling each of these erroneous thought patters, it remains equally vital to help those who worry better understand the nature of how the worry engine is ignited.
Think about this for a moment. Let’s assume you have just entered into a new romantic relationship, hoping it turns out to be one which will last for many years to come.
Unfortunately, your past relationships (all of which you believed were “the one”), slowly eroded away, as did hope, leaving you convinced that you will live your remaining years alone and miserable.
As this new relationship moves on, you find things keep getting better and better. In fact, to date, it now marks the longest romance in your life.
Suddenly, you find yourself thinking … “Oh, I’m feeling worried about this relationship. Everything is going great, yet I feel really anxious when I find myself thinking about how wonderful it is. I just know it’s the ‘calm before the storm,’ a storm I’ve weathered too many times before.”
If we were to ask this person, “What do you think is triggering your intense worry,” their answer will address the current relationship, past relationships, etc. Notice that this answer centers on content (i.e., relationship issues).
It’s NOT about the CONTENT. That’s not the real trigger for their anxious arousal. So, what is it that activates the onset of the worry process?
INTOLERANCE FOR UNCERTAINTY
Those who experience chronic anxiety, consistently make the mistake of becoming hyper vigilant to threat, which they define as whatever content they are needing to deal with at the moment. When anxious, people feel vulnerable, and once vulnerability sets in, so does self-doubt and a state of uncertainty.
If the content of worrisome thoughts becomes the target for treatment, nothing will change, because there is an unlimited amount of content out there. Once one content area is addressed, the person will present with new content the next session, followed by more new content, etc.
Imagine someone who is experiencing health anxiety. They begin by stating the trigger for their worry is the mole on their arm, which they construe as skin cancer. Once that threat is ruled out, the person begins to worry about the tingling sensations in their arms, interpreted as the onset of Muscular Sclerosis.
The human body presents with an infinite amount of diverse content to worry about, if one is so inclined. Targeting the content (changes in physical sensations), via the implementation of various reassurance-seeking behaviors, will only result in short-term gain (relief), accompanied by long-term pain (chronic worry).
The real issue here is that the person is in a state of doubt and uncertainty, which then triggers anxiety, leading the worrier down their default path of looking for, and truly believing, that “100% certainty” exists.
Chronic worriers cannot tolerate feeling uncertain, and are constantly finding themselves positioned at the intersection of “CERTAINTY” and “TOLERANCE.” Visualize sitting in your car, looking up at those two street signs. Unfortunately, those with anxiety keep driving down the same route — the one called “Certainty,” a road which they believe will lead to 100% certainty.
That destination doesn’t exist! Individuals who evidence anxiety conditions need to realize it’s time to change routes, and cross over to the road called, “Tolerance.” The longer one stays on this route, the sooner they come to realize that their tolerance level for the FEELING of anxious arousal becomes stronger.
As tolerance levels rise, interpretations of anxiety begin to change from “Anxiety=Danger,” to one of acceptance and a willingness to take on additional risks related to uncertainty. Once this occurs, the content of one’s worries becomes less meaningful.
Specific strategies for acquiring this new perspective, as well as an increased tolerance for managing uncertainty, will be outlined in our next article. For now, remain uncertain regarding the content of these strategies — you’ll be glad you took that route!
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.