Why is anxiety so hard to turn off?
When Systems Go Awry
Worry is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.
—Arthur Somers Roche
The Method To The Madness
Anxiety serves a purpose: to help us avoid danger. Without this innate sense of threat detection, we might step on a snake who could hiss at us and bite our ankle, or give our money to a thinly veiled con artist. So our Spidey sense of risk helps keep us safe from impending doom. But what if no doom is lurking?
Worries that are significantly out of proportion with any imminent threats can overtake our minds. Worse, because there is often a kernel of truth to our fears, we can point to concrete reasons for our distress and panic. Proof!
Let paralysis ensue. When driven by fear, we are doomed to avoid saying what we intend to, or if we do, are destined to replay everything we could have said better. The world is ending, or (Ok, that’s a bit extreme) about to get unbearably worse. We are especially unlucky. Or, sometime even worse: if we are lucky, we feel, well, guilty about it.
Avoidance Doesn’t Work
The more we try to avoid these swirling thoughts of dread, the more they come racing back. Obsessive or intrusive thoughts interfere with relationships, work and/or school. Worst of fall, they corrupt our overall peace of mind. High levels of anxiety can lead to avoidance of activities, or make the situations that you do participate in dreadfully stressful.
Self Reinforcement Is Powerful
These anxious thought patterns and tendencies are biochemical in nature. The longer that they persist, the more entrenched they become. Think of the preferred pathways that water from melting snow takes down the side of a mountain. Each time that water passes a certain route, it cuts a tiny bit of hard earth away, and picks up a little bit of speed. And while subtle day–to–day and year–to–year, over time, the water at some point reaches such momentum that it is rushing and starts to gush. Much like the thoughts in our brain can become unstoppable.
Reframe and Retrain
The more that you worry, the more entrenched these thoughts become in your brain, but it is possible to reverse the cycle. You can learn to reframe and retrain your perceptions and cognitive processing. Every time that you push back against the gush of water, you slightly change the course. When the force is too much to handle on your own, there is help and hope to create new ways of thinking.
Imagine how nice it would feel not to have a constant pit in your stomach, or: not to be awake two hours after you go to sleep worrying about some school or work think you know is not that big of a deal. When you seek psychotherapy for anxiety, it is crucial to find a psychologist trained in evidence-based exposure techniques, mindfulness, and other robust cognitive anxiety treatments. We are.