anxietysurvivor asked: Hey! Just one more question. Let say someone with anxiety like myself learn to like you said not run away from the symptoms and just let it happen do you think we'd have to do that our whole life or will it eventually get normal and unnoticeable?
Essay inbound, because this is such an unbelievable question and I don’t know if you even know it! But it’s a huge point of contention in the world of psychology at the moment.
Most people look at psychotherapy as symptom reduction. Remove anxiety, remove depression, etc. Just get rid of it entirely. Don’t feel anxious in this situation or that situation or what have you. We’re starting to learn, however, that symptom reduction may not be cutting it. In fact, making symptom reduction a goal in itself leads to bad things (avoidance, safety behaviors, etc.); things we know to perpetuate mental illness. Running away from anxiety? That’s a logical response though we KNOW that reinforces the anxiety itself.
If the path to betterment can be depicted by the common illustration of a horse and a cart, people often see symptom reduction as the horse, and perhaps learning to tolerate those once-anxious situations as the cart. That is, symptom reduction is the necessary step to tolerating situations that used to be anxiety-provoking, and until symptoms go down, we cannot “proceed” with any given event.
However, we’re now starting to look at it the other way: perhaps tolerating (acceptance) is the horse, and symptom reduction the cart. And we have good reason to believe this is better.
Anxiety comes from a very well-defined model which can be watered down as follows: trigger —> underlying anxiety —> response. If the response is a safety behavior or avoidance (such as avoiding deep breathing!), then the underlying anxiety is reinforced. Say the underlying anxiety consists of the thought, “something bad is going to happen.” When we avoid the event or try to minimize the anxiety, that thought is reinforced.
So if you are deep breathing and feel anxious and then stop for fear of the anxiety, deep breathing will continue to elicit an anxious response. This is a taught response now: deep breathing —> anxious thoughts —> “I need to escape this.”
If we just sit with it, let the anxiety happen, and do not run from it, however, something different happens: new learning takes place. And this point cannot be emphasized enough. Because suddenly you will learn, “I can have anxiety and feel terribly frightened, but nothing bad happened…hmmm…” Do this another 1, 2, 5, 20 times and watch what happens as new learning takes place.
Will the anxiety itself just disappear? No idea! Maybe not right away (but research shows it will eventually), BUT THAT IS NOT THE GOAL! Read that a couple times because I did not speak incorrectly there! The goal is NOT symptom reduction, because when that is the goal, we are constantly in “escape mode” trying to run away from the anxiety and THAT is what maintains it.
The goal, therefore, is to simply feel anxious! Feel it. Just for the sake of learning from it (learning, again as an example, that you can feel anxious and nothing bad has to happen!)
Anxiety happens. Depression happens. Triggers and fears and terrible thoughts happen. We cannot simply run from them or avoid them or alleviate them in maladaptive ways because this will serve to fuel them to a greater extent. The goal, therefore, is not to be concerned with removing them so much as relating to them in new ways, and allowing yourself to learn from them. To be able to feel a storm happening in your head and not allow that to stop you from attaining “X” or “Y.” When anxiety no longer means you have to run, when depression no longer means you have to withdraw socially, etc. then the power they have over an individual decreases significantly. This process may start without “feeling” better right away, or even anytime soon, but typically anxiety and depression stem from years of learning and training your brain to operate and respond a certain way, and so it takes time to learn new ways of responding.
Throw yourself into the storm and learn that you’ll be okay, that you can choose new ways of responding, and that it does not have to be a source of distress or keep you from doing whatever it may be keeping you from doing. That’s how anxiety is eradicated. Most everything else is only masking the anxiety.