Originally published on April 29, 2020
Why Use an Anxiety Relief Strategy That Doesn’t Work?
Over the past few years, several of my clients have come to me, confused and frustrated, after attempting to use a popular anxiety relief strategy.
“It was awful. It just made my fear so much worse,” said one of them.
“Are all anti-anxiety strategies this unhelpful? Am I doomed to endure this fear thing forever?” asked another.
It breaks my heart every time I hear these sorts of things.
Lucky for us, however, the answer to those questions is no; there really are anxiety relief strategies out there that will work for you. Yes, it might take some time, and it might require some experimenting, but eventually, you will find some.
They just likely won’t contain the same strategy my clients have had so much trouble with. In this post, we’ll talk about what that strategy is, why it’s unfruitful for so many people, and most importantly, what we can use in its place.
So, without further ado, let’s jump into that strategy and discuss where it goes awry.
“Bring It On, Anxiety”
I remember one of the first eBooks I ever read on the subject of anxiety. It was way back in 2009. I had recently experienced a panic attack for the first time and had no idea how to deal with it. As such, I went looking for answers.
That eBook I found provided me with a “must-have” strategy, the same unhelpful one I’ve been alluding to so far in this post. It went a little something like this:
When you feel your anxiety rising up inside you, turn and face it. Then, while looking right at it, ask for more of it. Taunt your fear and say, “Is that all you’ve got? I can handle anything you throw at me! Bring it on!” This will allow you to stop fearing your anxiety, which will, eventually, weaken it, in both the short term and the long term.
Looking back, I can see why I liked the sound of that strategy. I was nineteen years old. I was a rough-around-the-edges, angsty teenager. I loved the concepts of fighting and being tough, in both the physical and the mental realms.
After I learned this strategy, I moved quickly to utilize it in my everyday life. I searched for anxiety around every corner. I waited, on high alert, for it to rear its ugly head. I was ready to confront it and go to war with it. Or so I thought.
A few weeks later, my friend called me and told me he was having a party. He said there’d be beer and lots of pretty women. I was nervous just thinking about it.
I’ve always been a bit anxious socially, but back then, it was so much worse. At that time, every big social outing served as another opportunity to get in my head and obsess over how I’d thoroughly embarrass myself during it. The interactions, the talking, the women — they were all excuses for me to overanalyze and protect against yet another panic attack.
However, with this gathering, I told myself, I had a new strategy. And, as nervous as I was about the outing, I was also eager to try out that strategy.
I arrived at my friend’s house the night of the party and immediately felt the pre-game jitters taking over. I looked across the room and saw several attractive women chatting with my friends. I felt my heart race at the prospect of conversing with them.
I took one final gulp and said to myself, “Okay, Brian, here we go. This is where you tell your anxiety to bring it. This is where you refuse to back down. Now get over there with your friends and talk to those girls.”
Well, that was my strategy, at least until I realized my anxiety was not about to go down without a fight. About ten seconds later, much to my dismay, I was in the bathroom, trying to navigate my way through a mini panic attack.
“What the hell is going on? I’m doing everything the eBook told me to do, and yet, I’m totally freaking out over here. What am I doing wrong?” I asked myself.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the answers to those questions. In fact, it would take me several years to come up with some. So, without those answers in hand, I walked out of that bathroom, breathed as deeply as I could, grabbed a drink in the kitchen, then walked over to my friends with my heart in my throat.
It wasn’t the smoothest interaction in the world, and it certainly wasn’t the most comfortable, but, one way or another, that anxiety finally passed — no thanks to that new, supposedly helpful strategy.
Why Doesn’t “Bring It On, Anxiety” Work?
There’s a basic reason why this strategy doesn’t work, and it has to do with the fact that how you feel when you think about using it and how you feel when you actually use it are two wildly different things.
What I mean by this is that when you’re sitting at home, not feeling nervous, it’s easy to tell yourself that any time you feel anxious in the future, you’ll taunt that anxiety like a warrior. Such a visualization can even make anxiety slightly fun to think about. There’s nothing like feeling like a hero, even if only in our minds.
The problem, however, arises when you go to actually use the strategy in the heat of an anxiety or panic attack. No longer chilled out on your couch, you don’t quite feel like fighting off or taunting your anxiety anymore — you just feel like fainting.
Moreover, very few of us, no matter what we tell ourselves, actually want to feel frightened or anxious. Nor do we really want to experience any of the physical symptoms that come with such heightened states.
It’s like trying to convince yourself to eat that salad on the first day of your diet or run as fast as you can while in the middle of a 5K — both ideas sound so much better and easier when you’re sitting comfortably on your couch, two bowls into a Ben & Jerry’s session, far from actual hardship.
What I’m really trying to get at here is that there’s a huge difference between thinking about dominating your anxiety in dramatic fashion and actually doing so in real-time. Thus, this strategy promises the heroism without the hardship; it’s a cheap, feel-good idea.
Sure, every once in a while, I’ll hear from someone who’s actually employed it to their benefit. Nothing wrong with that. I congratulate these folks, tell them to keep doing what they’re doing, and send them on their way.
However, more often than not, I find folks worse off after using this strategy. Now, they’ve not only endured more panic, but they’ve also done so at the detriment of the disillusionment of a heavily-hyped, fairly baseless strategy. That sort of shock can cause trauma and make it even harder to move forward in the future. And, as you can probably guess, that’s not a good thing.
The other reason this strategy doesn’t work is that it places us on high alert. As soon as we learn it, we mobilize our anti-anxiety forces. We, much like I did at the age of nineteen, prepare for battle and start looking for anxiety around every corner.
There are many inherent problems with such an approach, but arguably the biggest one is that constantly being on edge not only makes it more difficult to keep a cool head when anxiety actually does arise, but it also causes anxiety to arise much more frequently than it would if we weren’t actually thinking about it.
To put it bluntly, constantly looking for anxiety isn’t just a bad strategy — it’s also literal madness.
What Should We Do Instead of Taunting Anxiety?
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “If this strategy doesn’t work, then what the heck should we actually do when it comes to finding anxiety relief?”
While there are countless strategies we could come up with and employ, I want to focus on one that’s most closely related to what we’ve already discussed at length here. That is, I want to turn the “bring it on, anxiety” strategy around and morph it into something almost all of us will find useful. We can do this by looking at the somewhat helpful pieces of that strategy that wind up falling short in the end.
Of course, no therapist, life coach, or author would ever send you away with a strategy they knew didn’t work whatsoever. There’s a reason why “bring it on, anxiety” has become popular over the years: it works for some while it confuses many others, which gets people talking about it, regardless of how helpful it actually is.
When authority figures in the mental health space recommend such a tactic, remember that they’re doing so because they actually think it will be of benefit to their followers. Thus, as much as I bash this strategy, it’s not like it’s never helped anyone in the history of mankind.
And, if you look at it critically, you can see why that’s the case. That is, one way or another, it gets people out of their houses and safe spaces; it forces them to confront something (anxiety) they likely wouldn’t have otherwise.
For some, that confrontation alone is enough to power them through a difficult or challenging experience. However, for many of us, that confrontation just serves as further instruction to our bodies to intensify our physical symptoms and push even more anxiety into our minds.
Thus, this strategy is clearly off, just maybe not as far as we might have previously thought. That’s where our new strategy comes in.
That new strategy is to allow your anxiety to arise whenever it may, yet pay it as little attention as possible when it does; to let it be without searching for or taunting it. This does a couple of different things for us.
First, it removes the scenario where we make ourselves anxious simply because we’re looking for fear around every turn. There’s no need to put ourselves on high alert — we’ll deal with anxiety when it arises, not every waking moment of the day. And, second, it gives us a fighting chance of staying out of our heads when anxiety actually does arise.
As I talked about in a previous post, when we jump into our heads and attach to negative thoughts, we often perpetuate them and, in turn, make ourselves feel worse. This is why this “bring it on, anxiety” strategy doesn’t work all that well; focusing on and attaching to anxiety is exactly the sort of thing we want to avoid when it actually does come knocking.
There’s absolutely no reason to taunt our minds and bodies and tell them to work harder than they already are. While some folks might argue that doing so counterintuitively turns off negative feelings and symptoms simply because we’re telling our bodies we’re okay with them, such is rarely the case in practice.
As we’ve talked about already, the reason for this is simple. As much as we want to pretend like our anxiety doesn’t scare us, for most of us, it actually does. Thus, when we ask our bodies for “more,” that’s exactly what we get — more anxiety, more fear, faster heart palpitations, and the like.
Does that sound like a solid strategy to you? I didn’t think so. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting more anxiety. I sure as hell don’t want any more of it, and I’m not ashamed to say that. You shouldn’t be, either.
As such, instead of using a strategy that rarely works, we should engage our new strategy in its place. That is, we should focus on our anxiety as little as we can and resolve to deal with it only when it arises. Then, when it does arise, we should pay it little to no mind and let it pass through us as quickly as possible.
Going to war with something or someone can be an okay last resort if that something or someone can actually be eradicated by force. Anxiety does not fall into that category, however; going to war with it only proves that we actually fear it. The more we build up that fear in our minds, the larger it grows, and the more power it has over us.
As we seek anxiety relief, let’s remember that anxiety can only become a monster if we make it out to be one, in our minds. Hopefully, with the help of this newly modified strategy, we’ll be able to show that monster for what it really is, bring it down to size, and find relief far more often than we have previously.
Thanks for reading! Curious to learn more?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety:
*Disclaimer: The above link is an affiliate URL, which pays me a small commission when readers make purchases through it.