What Happens When We Try To ‘Fight’ Anxiety?
Trying to fight anxiety, research suggests (and, certainly, my own experience of anxiety would tend to confirm this) can actually AGGRAVATE the problem and lead to greater feelings of distress. Stating the shatteringly obvious, none of us wants to experience the feelings an anxiety condition brings; however, difficult as it may sound at first, DEVELOPING AN ATTITUDE OF ACCEPTANCE TOWARDS IT, rather than entering an exhausting mental battle with it, has been reported by many to be a superior strategy for coping with anxiety.
The psychologist Beck, to whom I have made several references already in this blog (he was one of the founders of the very helpful therapy called Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or CBT, for people suffering from conditions such as depression and anxiety – see my posts on CBT) devised the acronym A.W.A.R.E for ease of remembering the key strategies for coping. Let’s take a look at what the acronym A.W.A.R.E stands for:
A Accept the anxiety (it sounds hard, I know, but so is constantly struggling to fight it):
The benefits of adopting this approach are that it may help to reduce the PHYSIOLOGICAL symptoms commonly associated with anxiety (e.g. accelerated heart rate, increased muscle tension, hyperventilation, sweating -or ‘cold sweats’- trembling, dry mouth etc). It may, too, help with PSYCHOLOGICAL symptoms (people report that an attitude of acceptance towards their anxiety makes them feel less distressed). A kind of motto which has come to attach itself to the acceptance approach to anxiety is: ‘if you are not WILLING to have it, you WILL’ (see what they’ve done there!)
W Watch your anxiety:
It is suggested that rather than get too ‘caught up’ in anxiety, together with all the distressing negative thoughts and fears it produces, too, instead, just observe it in a DETACHED and NON-JUDGMENTAL manner; this involves trying to adopt a kind of NEUTRAL MENTAL ATTITUDE towards it – in other words, neither liking it nor seeing the experience of anxiety as a terrible, unsolvable catastrophe (again, I realize, of course, that intense anxiety is very painful, so this, too, may sound difficult at first). People report that when they adopt this DETACHED, NEUTRAL view of their feelings of anxiety they start to lose their, hitherto, tenacious grip on their lives.
A Act with your anxiety:
Severe anxiety can leave us feeling as if we are incapable of functioning on even a basic level. It is important to remember, however, as I have repeated at, no doubt, tedious length throughout this blog, that just because we believe something it does not logically follow that the belief must be true. Indeed, when my anxiety was at its worst, I did not feel able or even believe I could shave or brush my teeth etc…etc… Many people report, however, that if they take the first (often, extremely challenging) step to try to carry on with normal activities, despite the feeling of anxiety which may accompany this, they can, after all, accomplish that which they originally believed they couldn’t. Success then tends to build upon success: completion of the first activity increases the self-belief and the confidence to go on to the second activity, the completion of which provides further self-belief and confidence…and so on…and so on…
In order to make this easier, it may be necessary to slow down the pace at which, in different circumstances, we would otherwise carry out the particular tasks that we set ourselves.
R Repeat the steps:
This just means that by repeating the ACCEPTING ANXIETY, WATCHING OUR ANXIETY (in a detached and neutral manner) and ACTING (despite the feelings of anxiety which may accompany such action) CYCLE, the anxiety may be slowly eroded away.
E Expect the best (even if it does not come naturally) :
When we are depressed and anxious we, almost invariably, expect the worst. This is overwhelmingly likely to perpetuate the condition. However, just as expecting the worst can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, so, too, can expecting the best. If like me, you are not a natural optimist, the concept of expecting the best may go against the grain. However, research shows that optimistic people are more likely to achieve their goals than those of us who do not appear to have been blessed with quite such a sunny disposition. It is worth adopting the strategy on, at least, an experimental basis. It is also useful to keep in mind that even if the best does not occur, we will still have the inner-strength necessary to cope.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).