By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, BSW, MSW, RSW
The Anxiety Vortex: The beliefs that fuel anxiety is Part 2 of a four-part blog series on anxiety and anxiety disorders. In this series Kristina Schwalm, BSW, MSW, RSW, addresses the important issues surrounding anxiety and anxiety treatment. You might laugh, you might cry – okay, well you probably won’t do either of these things – but more importantly – you will learn to recognize when you are getting sucked into the whirling vortex of anxiety and what you can do about it. This week, we’ll discuss what anxiety is and the thoughts that fuel it.
Part 1: The thoughts that fuel anxiety
Part 2: Beliefs that fuel anxiety
Part 3: Coping with Panic Attacks
Part 4: Treating anxiety disorders and symptoms
Hi everyone, welcome back. I hope by this point you have been able to digest the information from Part 1 of this series: The thoughts that fuel anxiety. As a recap, in Part 1 we looked at the two main thought patterns associated with anxiety. They are, overestimation of danger, and underestimation of my ability to cope. We explored the ways these two habits of thinking set us up for the ongoing experience of anxiety symptoms.
This week we will look at the beliefs that provoke and maintain our anxiety symptoms. If you recognize having held any of these beliefs before, likely that means that you are human. However, if you recognize you carry these beliefs and you have difficulties with stress and anxiety, then it’s probably time to contact your family doctor and a CBT therapist to help you debunk these beliefs, and reduce the anxiety symptoms that these beliefs provoke.
Belief Number 1: Anxiety allows for Superstitious avoidance of catastrophe
This is the belief that, if I worry about a particular feared outcome, it will be less likely to occur. For example, “if I have imagined my wife crashing her car on the highway, it is less likely to happen and she will get home safely”. This belief usually derives from it’s unfortunate flip-side belief, “when I don’t anticipate worst-case scenarios that’s when they usually pop up.”
However, when we take the time to actually acknowledge and examine this belief, it usually sounds pretty silly. The idea that thinking and focusing on a particular feared outcome is a helpful tool for preventing real-life disaster is like believing in mind-control. But, as ridiculous as it sounds, many of us still allow this belief to fester and reek havoc on the psyche. The obvious problem is that it encourages us to focus on all potential dangers, and thus fall deeper and deeper into the anxiety vortex.
Belief Number 2: Anxiety allows for Actual avoidance of catastrophe
This is the belief that anxiety is helpful in a practical way. The idea is that anxiety helps us to be conscious of all potentially dangerous outcomes, and as a result we can anticipate, swerve, and glide out of danger’s way. If we’re on our toes, if we’re considering all of the threatening angles, we will keep ourselves in a blanket of safety.
The problem, as with belief number 1, is that if we accept this belief, we will ALWAYS be on our toes. As we touched on in Part 1 of this series, the anxious mind is extraordinarily brilliant. If we train it to look for danger, it can always find it. Everywhere. And thus, in every situation we can find potential threat. See the problem? We! will! always! be! on! our! toes! Read: extremely anxious.
However, for a lot of folks, this belief can be a tough one to let go of. That is largely because there is a tiny nugget of truth in it. Yes, anticipating danger is, to a certain extent, necessary in life and can be helpful. We don’t want to walk blindly into the abyss with no consideration of potential harm. But, the question is, does a constant examination of all angles of danger actually keep us safer? Or is the anxiety that develops the greater danger?
Moreover, the majority of the feared situations we are trying to avoid are largely unpredictable and beyond our control. So, anticipating them becomes at best, pretty fruitless and at worst, totally debilitating, as we slip deeper into the vortex.
Belief Number 3: Anxiety allows for Preparation for Catastrophe
This is the belief that worrying and predicting negative events helps to soften their impact when they occur. The idea is that fretting will act as a shield against the pain of a bad outcome: having anticipated it, the pain and disappointment will be lessened. The argument I often hear is, “if I consider all negative outcomes, then, when danger strikes I will be prepared for it, and if it doesn’t, I will be pleasantly surprised.”
The problem is that it just doesn’t work this way. There is no evidence that having fretted and brooded about a particular feared outcome will actually lessen the blow if it occurs. Moreover, if it doesn’t happen, we will have wasted tonnes of time and energy in the anxiety vortex, AND there will most likely not be a pleasant sigh of relief or celebration that we have thwarted danger. Our anxious mind will just quickly move on to consider the next potential danger.
Belief Number 4: Anxiety allows for Avoidance of deeper emotional topics
This is the belief that my trivial day-to-day anxiety is a distraction from the truly emotionally-charged issues in my life – the things that would actually make me anxious. Hmmmmm, interesting idea, but sadly, (or happily??), the human psyche is much smarter than this. We can’t just distract ourselves with a focus on smaller, less meaningful issues. There is a depth to our psyche, which means that even if we focus on the surface, our minds will quietly, and less-consciously stir about our more profound concerns. Left unexamined, our response to our more profound fears will begin to pervade the surface issues. Ie., we will begin to feel life or death responses over issues that are relatively very tiny.
For example, if I focus my anxiety on running my child’s school fundraiser, but I am truly concerned about my actual chronic health issues, suddenly the fundraiser’s success will take on a life-or-death meaning that is disproportionate to it’s actual significance. What I actually need to do is look at and examine my deeper fears to help resolve and reduce the associated anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t go away by pretending it’s not there. Like a child’s fear of a monster in the closet, if we open the door and see nothing is there, the fear lessens. If we keep the door closed it gets bigger, scarier, and we lose awareness of our own coping skills to deal with it.
Belief Number 5: Anxiety is A motivating device
This is the belief that worrying helps to keep me motivated to avoid all potential dangers. The idea is that if I focus on potential dangerous outcomes, I will be able to stay motivated now and avoid those future threats. For example, “If I don’t get my taxes done today I will get followed by the federal revenue agency and then arrested and forced to declare bankruptcy”.
I am not suggesting that we should never anticipate danger, that we just walk blindly into the world with no consideration for our safety. “Don’t worry about paying your taxes, it will just all work out somehow”. No, no one is suggesting we believe this. Just like belief number 2, what helps this belief fester, is that there is a tiny nugget of truth to it.
The problem is that the anxiety-driven extreme is just as ludicrous as the dismissive one. Let’s revisit it: “If I don’t get my taxes done today I will get followed by the federal revenue agency and then arrested and forced to declare bankruptcy”. A little extreme? Anxiety helps us make the stakes far too high, and as a result, it can actually act as a de-motivator, in the sense that it leaves us fearful and paralyzed, read: procrastination and avoidance.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for anxiety we consider whether these beliefs are fully accurate, (not to mention harmful), and we gradually learn to recognize them in action, assess and challenge them. From here we can determine more realistic and balanced beliefs that will allow for a helpful and healthful approach to the the unpredictable bumps on life’s terrain.
For more on how we recognize, challenge and change our beliefs, stay tuned for Part 4 of this series: Treating anxiety disorders and symptoms.
See you all again on Tuesday July 12th for Part 3 of the series: Coping with Panic Attacks.