The anxiety effort paradox

You arrive at this community with the intent of reducing or eliminating anxiety. You have heard that there are tools, techniques, and coping skills that will either help you manage your anxiety or cure it completely. Other people around you seem to be less anxious and seem to use methods like meditation, yoga, nutrition, sleep, and exercise to stay calm and healthy. For some reason, the more you try these methods, the more anxious you feel. Or, you’re having trouble consistency engaging in these behaviors, even though you commit with your whole heart and you completely believe they would be helpful for you. Welcome to the anxiety effort paradox!

First off, remember that anxiety disorders in general are a paradox. Don’t think of a white bear. Don’t think of a white elephant. Don’t think of a gorilla. Don’t think about all of them dancing together. When you tell yourself not to think about something, you will think about it more. If you desperately fear specific sensations or feelings, they are more likely to occur in your experience. An example is feeling lonely, then thinking that you shouldn’t feel lonely, and then feeling lonelier. This is a loneliness loop. A loop like this could occur about any thought, feeling, or sensation. 

These paradoxes can make you feel crazy, but you are the opposite of crazy. Your mind is working perfectly. Your cells have evolved to fight off infection. Your mind has evolved to fight off discomfort and distress. When your mind detects thoughts, feelings, or sensations that cause discomfort and distress, it searches for the source and tries to get rid of it. If the source of your discomfort and distress is an actual problem, like hunger, you’re in luck in the modern world! You can eat something and the thought, feeling, and sensation will go away. If the source of your discomfort and distress is not an actual problem, but instead another thought, sensation, or feeling, trying to fight it off will get you caught in a loop and it will get worse. Modern life makes us believe that if something causes discomfort or distress, we should be able to do something to make it go away. It works for basically everything except the private experiences of your consciousness. The more you fight to with your mind, the worse you will feel. 

An anxiety disorder is a loop that you’ve been in long enough for the loop to cause its own problems. At this point, you might actually have problems like muscle tension, headaches, irritability, stomach distress, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue. You can try techniques, like massage or dietary changes, to manage the problems caused by the anxiety loop. But, they will keep coming back if the you’re still in the loop. teaches you to observe and understand your loops, so that you can see it for what it is when it occurs and get out of it yourself. You learn a way of relating to yourself that doesn’t prevent anxiety for occurring, but alleviates the suffering you have about the experience of anxiety over time. Because it is an entirely different way of thinking about your mind, it will take some time for you to practice enough and work out the details enough to be out in front of the loop on a regular basis. 

Two major challenges about learning to relate effectively to your anxiety is that you are actually suffering and your new relationship with anxiety changes in the context of your life. 

You are actually suffering. If, rather than an anxiety coach, I was a basketball coach, it would be easier to teach you how to play the game. Knowing how to play basketball can make your life better, but you don’t suffer if you don’t know how to play. Approaching your anxiety feels like it has urgency because you will suffer until you understand how to play its game better. I know this. I will try to get you some quick wins. That is, I’ll teach you some techniques that can immediately decrease your anxiety in the moment. I do this just to keep you motivated, not because I actually believe in the techniques. I am really hoping that I can reduce your urgency enough for you to be patient with your own process. 

I have the best results with people who are able to think about their experience of anxiety like a basketball game, even while they are actually suffering from it. If you are able to get distance from what you feel and really get curious about what is happening and how to execute on an effective strategy. 

Good teams lose games, but focus on their strategy. When you are at the point where you think, “I had anxiety, but my strategy was great,” you are winning. Eventually you will feel very little anxiety. 

Your new relationship with anxiety happens in the context of your life. While I’m teaching you a more effective way to relate to the experience of anxiety, we also have the reality that life doesn’t stop just because you’ve committed to this process. Sometimes you should actually work to manage your anxiety, rather than surrender to it, so that it doesn’t cause impairment in your life. Examples of anxiety management techniques include taking anxiety medication, getting reassurance in a limited way about certain topics, or avoiding a very anxiety-provoking experience in favor of a more manageable activity. This might seem like a double message, but it is not. In the long-term, I want you to relate to the experience of anxiety with friendliness and humor, and while you’re learning to relax into that attitude, I don’t want anything to happen to you that will make a friendly relationship with anxiety even harder. 

We’ll do a lot of work together, but remember that learning to relate to anxiety effectively requires a paradoxical effort. If you must work hard, work hard to observe what’s happening, work hard to attend to what you’re doing well, and work hard to bring up an attitude of humor and humility when you notice your limitations. 

In any given anxious moment, try your best to stop working effortfully to alleviate it and instead get curious about it and watch it. 

In Community Time this week, be prepared to discuss: 

  • Under what conditions do you struggle against your anxiety the most? 
  • Under what conditions are you able to surrender to your anxiety? 
  • What questions do you have about the anxiety effort paradox?