“But the Society of Esteemed & Honorable Vicars can’t possibly go in there! That room has already been booked by…”
(both look at one another, sharing the horrific realisation)
(in unison) “THE INTERNATIONAL STRIPPERS CHAMPIONSHIPS”
(Little Billy enters)
“Bad news sirs… there was a mixup with the zookeeper and I’m afraid there’s a SECOND tiger on the loose…”
(In the background, Old Mrs Adams faints)
Everyone rushes to leave at once, accidentally knocking Little Billy into the fireplace.
He runs around wildly, in the process setting fire to the cat, who explodes due to all the gunpowder ingested during the earlier mishap (see p17).
(Zoom to Little Billy) “Sir! I’ve spotted another problem…”
It’s clear that things, in general, can rapidly spiral out of control.
Although, admittedly, not usually as badly as this scene from an imaginary sitcom I scrobbled together to make a point.
Inner critic: You know, you COULD just have said “Things can rapidly get out of control”. People would understand.
Yeah, but then I wouldn’t have had an excuse to use a picture of a cat walking away from an explosion. And I really wanted to do that.
Inner critic: I guess this is the bit where you make a tenuous connection from that introduction to the subject of anxiety, then?
That’s right. Anxiety can go from a tiny feeling of unease to a full-on panic attack very quickly. Even if it doesn’t become panic, a stray scary thought can develop into an obsession that’s very difficult to shake.
After a while, the horrible familiarity of these scary thoughts can be an awful experience on their own. I’ve had thoughts come into my head and immediately tried to batter them down, knowing that if I latch onto them that I won’t get anything done for the rest of the day (at least) as I obsess over whatever they may be.
I’ve found the simplest tactic to prevent anxiety spiralling out of control is this:
Stop viewing anxiety as the enemy.
Immediately, if you’re anything like me, there will be a cacophony of resistant voices in your mind, each frantically pulling apart that idea:
WHAT?! But anxiety IS the enemy! I HATE anxiety!
That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard. Don’t listen to this guy.
How can that help? Surely if we accept anxiety, we’ll just be anxious forever, and that’s BAD.
These voices are yet another strand in the tangled knot of anxiety. They are an immediate distraction, demanding we deal with them rather than address whatever idea we’re considering.
But, I promise, ceasing to resist anxiety is a powerful weapon. Here’s why:
When we resist anxiety, we are telling our subconscious that anxiety is unpleasant. That anxiety is something to fear.
These creates a feedback loop. Fearing anxiety just gives us more to be anxious about. This makes us more anxious. Which gives us more to fear. Which makes us more anxious. Which gives us more to fear…
Viewed via a Highly Scientific Graph, this looks something like this:
On the other hand, if we don’t fear anxiety, the Highly Scientific Graph looks more like this:
Imagine if, when an anxious thought comes into my mind, instead of reacting with more anxiety I reacted with boredom:
“Oh, it’s THAT thought again. How very tedious.”
Or, perhaps, with excitement:
“Yay! Hello, thought-that-I-might-have-an-undetectable-disease, great to see you again!”
If I react in this way, I don’t add extra fear to my initial anxiety.
Reacting like this isn’t easy. It requires going against our instincts: it’s perfectly natural to be anxious about something unpleasant.
But it is possible to react with boredom, enthusiasm, joy, or whatever other emotion we choose. It isn’t inevitable that we must react to anxiety with more anxiety. There is no Law of the Universe which says we must be anxious about anxiety itself.
Once you view it like this, it becomes (sort of) obvious that trying to be less anxious about anxiety may be a solid strategy.
But obvious things aren’t generally obvious except in hindsight, so there’s no need to feel guilty about that!
Of course, this doesn’t magically solve all our problems. There’s no simple cure-all to be free of anxiety forever. BUT this helps us to not make it any worse.
Which leaves us with more resources to get to work on whatever the root of our problems actually IS. Like those tigers that Little Billy keeps accidentally letting loose.
* No cats were harmed in the production of this blogpost.
Check out or purchase the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores all these ideas in much more detail.
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Read the whole series on Anxiety here.