Just tell yourself there’s nothing to worry about. Just stop thinking about it. Just tell yourself your fears are irrational. Just talk yourself into doing things anyway. Just face your fears. Just expose yourself repeatedly and you’ll learn it’s safe. Just take deep breaths. Just do some relaxation exercises.
And if it doesn’t work?
Just try harder.
WHY THIS ADVICE DOESN’T WORK
I haven’t personally talked to every single person who has ever suffered from anxiety, so maybe there are people out there who find the above advice helpful. But I do know it doesn’t work for me and I’ve talked to a lot of other people who are in the same boat as I am.
Here are four potential reasons why this commonly doled out advice will not take your anxiety away:
1. Your body responds with fear before your mind has a chance to consider whether fear is warranted.
The fight or flight mode is a physiological process that takes place throughout your body in response to anxiety triggers whether or not your conscious mind thinks the fight or flight response is actually warranted by the situation. Your senses pick up something that is a potential threat and your brain triggers the fight or flight response before your conscious mind is actually aware of the potential threat. Your conscious mind only becomes aware of the fight or flight response after it’s already occurring.
It’s a good thing to learn to separate the physical anxiety symptoms from your thoughts. Just because your body feels worried doesn’t mean your mind needs to buy into it. You can use your rational mind to convince yourself “to do things anyway”. You may also be able to use rational thinking to help calm yourself down when you are already experiencing anxiety.
But you will not be able to prevent anxiety from occurring in the first place just by telling yourself there is nothing to worry about.
2. Not all fear is irrational.
Sometimes my brain tells my body to go into fight or flight for really ridiculous reasons. Like there is no threat of anything bad happening. Zilch.
Or what happens even more frequently is my body going into fight or flight for some mini-threat. Something tiny bit bad might happen and my brain overreacts.
But I will say this in defense of my brain: it hasn’t always been wrong to be afraid. I was born into a dysfunctional family with some verbally and physically abusive members. My brain was on hyper-alert for real threats for the first 16 years of my life until I left.
And guess what? A brain like that is going to be on the look-out for more potential threats for the rest of its life. It’s always going to be more alert than other brains, because it knows first-hand that this world is not always a safe place for everyone. It’s going to assume that new people and situations are not safe until proven otherwise rather than the other way around.
Bad things happen. Sometimes your worst fears come true. People get sick. People die. Accidents happen. People do terrible things to other people. People make mistakes. Your rational mind understands that just because these things happen some of the time to some people in some situations, doesn’t mean every person and every situation is a threat. But the more you have been exposed to bad things for real, the harder it becomes for your brain to be convinced that you are safe.
3. What most people perceive as a safe situation, might not feel safe to you.
Some people’s brains are more alert to potential threats than other people’s. When you are a sensitive person or an empath, your senses pick up things that most people’s senses ignore. Your senses pick up any and all signs of potential threats. Shifts in mood, tension in someone’s voice, discomfort conveyed by someone’s body language. Judgment, disagreement, conflict. While others hear the words that are spoken, you sense the feelings that are not expressed out loud.
Your non-anxious friend will say “See, nothing bad happened. That was perfectly safe. Next time you won’t need to worry.” And your friend is right in that you weren’t killed. You survived. But what your friend doesn’t see is the stress you experienced processing all of the unspoken signs. The internal dialogue you kept going in an attempt to keep calm. The exhaustion from all the intense feelings. The hurt from someone’s thoughtless comment.
You survived. But your body was still stressed. Your brain is not entirely convinced it was safe.
4. The advice is not practical for many real-life situations.
Even if the advice did work for some people, it’s not practical to apply in many real-life situations.
First of all, even if repeated exposure to triggers did teach your brain that a situation is actually safe, you don’t often have control over when and how often you are exposed or whether the outcome will be positive enough for your brain to feel good. You can’t tell a difficult client to please send you 15 mean emails in a rapid succession so you can desensitize yourself.
Second, while some of the relaxation techniques may have the power to calm you down, it’s often not practical to do them when you are in the middle of a stressful situation. Most relaxation techniques require you to fully focus on yourself and your body. How can you do that when you are out in the world interacting with other people? You can’t lay on the floor and start meditating in the middle of a work meeting.
You can use relaxation techniques to help calm yourself down after stressful situations. For some people, a regular relaxation practice might even carry over and help them feel calmer in typically anxiety-provoking situations. But for many of us with serious anxiety, our fight or flight response will be triggered whether or not we did breathing exercises earlier that day.
WHAT TO TRY INSTEAD
For many of us, stress and anxiety are not going to go away just by facing our fears and doing relaxation exercises. And when you expose yourself to stress and anxiety over and over and over again, society might reward you, but nature won’t. The fight or flight response is a physiological process that negatively impacts your body. Stress and anxiety have physical symptoms. These symptoms are not good for your body.
So what are you supposed to do? Just give up?
For starters you could talk to your doctor about taking medications to control your anxiety symptoms. This is the solution for many people. However, there are also many people, myself included, who can’t or won’t take medications. I tried many combinations, and they did take my anxiety away, but they also brought with them a number of side effects that proved too unbearable in the end. For me, the benefits of the medications did not outweigh the costs.
And what are you supposed to do then? Now do you give up?
You are supposed to be a survivor. You are supposed to make the best of it. You are supposed to kick life’s ass.
Here are the steps for doing just that:
1. Stop banging your head against the wall.
Stop beating yourself up for not being able to will your anxiety away. It’s going to be with you indefinitely, so you might as well make friends with it. It’s just your brain trying to protect you. It might go a little overboard and it might be a pain in the ass sometimes, but think of it as your overzealous bodyguard who’s trying to keep you away from harm.
2. Make Relaxation A Priority
Look for ways to get out of fight or flight and stay out of it for significant chunks of time. Your body needs the rest. I said earlier that all that relaxation advice is not practical in most anxiety-provoking situations. But you can use it to recover from stress. You can use it to give yourself a break when you are not actually in a stressful situation at the moment. Some ideas:
- Exercise, like running or swimming
- Breathing or progressive muscle relaxation exercises
- Distracting your mind with books or movies or a fun project
3. Consider what you want out of life.
Figure out who you are aside from being an anxious person. Figure out what is a meaningful life for you. Figure out what your passion and purpose are. Figure out what you need to make your life worth living.
If you need help in this area, I have some articles to get you started:
And by the way, there is nothing wrong with making it a goal to lead a slow-paced, not-too-stressful life. Mainstream western societies did not evolve with sensitive people in mind. We are living at a time and in a world that was not designed with our needs in mind. But guess what? We do have the power to say “screw you mainstream society”. We do have the power to bring more calm and quiet into our lives. We do have the power to create careers that are not centered on competition and greed. We do have the power to surround ourselves with people who help make us feel safe.
4. Face your fears only in pursuit of what is meaningful to you.
The anxiety cannot be willed away – it’s going to be with you indefinitely. And whenever you expose yourself to anxiety triggers, it’s going to tax your body. So do it sparingly, with intention.
- If you are going to subject your body to stress and anxiety, it had better be for something you really, really want.
- If you are going to subject your body to stress and anxiety for the sake of another person, it had better be for someone you love and who loves you back unconditionally.
- If you are going to subject your body to stress and anxiety for your career, it had better be in pursuit of your dream career.
5. Don’t waste your energy on anxiety triggers that are not worth it.
I went through a period of time trying to prove that anxiety wasn’t going to stop me. I would do anything anyone ever suggested or asked, just to show that I could. I wanted to prove that anxiety didn’t have power over me. I wanted to prove that I was mentally healthy. I wanted to appear as normal as possible.
But the thing is, facing all these fears and triggers didn’t make my anxiety go away. It still showed up and the more triggers I would face, the more stressed I would get. And the more stressed I would get, the more easily I would be triggered.
I was facing too many fears too frequently. And not only that, I was facing the wrong fears. I was following someone else’s checklist for a meaningful life – not my own.
Until I created my own check-list of fears that are worth facing and said fuck the rest.
It’s worth it to me to face my fear of being vulnerable and publish this article on the internet. It’s worth it to me to face my fear of being surrounded by dozens of strangers and go to a school event where my daughter is presenting a project. It’s worth it to me to face my fear of driving and take my husband to the doctor. Each of these things will stress my body out, but it’s worth it and I can handle the stress, because for every fear I now face, I say no to facing a multitude of others.
I say no to any kind of potential or real stress that doesn’t move me forward in my life. I say no to invitations from acquaintances I’m not close to anyway. I say no to a high-pressure career that doesn’t fulfill me anyway. I say no to obsessing about problems and obstacles and worst-case scenarios without brainstorming solutions.
It’s absolutely possible to live a full and meaningful life even if you have anxiety. And to achieve that, you don’t need to make it a goal to face as many fears as possible. You don’t need to make it a goal to be triggered as often as possible. It’s not worth the stress on your body to face all of your fears. It’s not worth the stress on your body to live by anybody else’s version of normal.
Figure out what’s worth it to you and say no to everything else.