Most anxious people are aware that their thoughts are irrational but feel unable to stop themselves. Even the most calm-minded person can become its victim. There are some shocking truths regarding how we mistakenly try to deal with our anxiety:
- How being intolerant of uncertainty in your life actually increases your anxiety – rather than reducing it
- The real reason “worrying about worry” feels productive
- Why we create more problems than we solve when looking for “perfect solutions”
- How distracting ourselves from worrying or trying to just “think positively” actually backfires in the long run
If you have ever been tempted to seek anxiety counseling, odds are that you might be struggling with worry. Worry is a pattern of thinking that is persistent, repetitive, and uncontrollable. Worry mostly focuses on the uncertainty of the future. This intolerance for uncertainty is actually one of the defining features of our anxiety!
When we worry, we tend to predict negative or threatening results. We try to think about all the possible solutions along every potential choice. Ironically, mentally planning for every contingency actually makes our anxiety worse. When we are predicting that bad things will happen, what’s really going in is that we have trouble accepting uncertainty.
No matter how much we try to problem solve, nothing seems to reduce our overwhelming feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. However, we still feel uncertain and anxious because we can’t implement any of our solutions yet.
Intolerance of Uncertainty
Being intolerant of uncertainty is believed to predispose individuals to have mental health issues with anxiety, also known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Being intolerant of uncertainty also helps to maintain the disorder once it has developed. People without an anxiety disorder may not like uncertainty, but they generally tolerate it. They generally believe that if bad things happen, they’ll be able to cope.
People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder are different. They believe it is unacceptable to be uncertain or to experience ambiguity. They are afraid that uncertainty or ambiguity will lead to negative outcomes or cause problems in general. They may also believe that it is irresponsible if they don’t try to resolve the uncertainty or ambiguity.
When people who struggle with anxiety receive ambiguous or uncertain information, they use maladaptive coping strategies to try to guarantee certainty. Their major strategies are worry and avoidance. Another strategy includes using safety behaviors, where they seek reassurance from others, over-prepare, gather excessive amounts of information, or repeatedly check or verify the safety of the information or situation.
For example, if Susan is going to a social event with some new acquaintances, she might be thinking, “What if everyone finds out I’m shy and stops talking to me?” This thought reflects her uncertainty about what might happen. Her attempt to cope involved the use of worry and avoidance in order to try to gain certainty.
Unhealthy Beliefs About Worry
When we have excessive anxiety and worry, we tend to have several strongly held beliefs about worry itself. Some of these beliefs are positive, and others are negative. For example, “Worrying will help prepare me for danger (positive belief)”, or “Worry is uncontrollable and potentially dangerous (negative belief)”.
Even when we experience worries as uncontrollable, we continue to worry. We continue to believe that worrying is helpful. So it’s important to understand our specific beliefs about the advantages and disadvantages of worry. For example, we might feel that worrying keeps us safe and alert. However, it can lead to more worry, make our mood worse, and get in the way of our relationships.
We Solve the Wrong Problem
When we experience constant anxiety, we tend to view problems as threats. We have low confidence in our ability to solve problems, so we expect a negative outcome if we try. As a result, we overcompensate in trying to create the perfect solution to our problems. Suddenly, instead of solving the real problem (our worry), we end up getting stuck and focused on solving what we are worrying about, and end up not solving the real problem.
In part, this happens because we keep trying to come up with a solution that we are certain will work. But if the problem we are concerned about is still in the future, we can’t immediately implement our solution. This means that we can’t be certain that our solution will work, so we continue to worry and come up with additional solutions without actually choosing one.
For example, if we’re not certain how to solve a problem, we might ask a friend what we should do. If we are given more that one solution to the problem, we might end up worrying about which one is the best solution. Even if we end up deciding what to do, we will continually second guess ourselves.
We Avoid our Feelings
Worrying can serve as a way to avoid threatening images, “Worst Case Scenario” thoughts, and distressing emotions. Worry is usually composed of verbal thoughts, such as, “What if my mind goes blank?” Worry tends not to be composed of images or visual pictures in the mind. We may try to think about something positive if we become aware of a negative thought or emotion, or attempt to “push” it away.
We may tell ourselves not to think about certain worries or criticize ourselves for worrying or having anxious thoughts. We may try to distract ourselves from our anxiety or negative emotions. These techniques tend to backfire and actually reinforce our worry and anxiety. We end up becoming addicted to avoiding the unpleasant emotions that stem from our worries at all cost. We fear that if we get too anxious, we’ll fall apart. Or we mentally tell ourselves not to worry over and over, and it’s no surprise that we end up worrying more, because we are still thinking about what we are worried about.