In my book, Anxiety Free: Unravel Your Fears Before They Unravel You, I suggest that we think of different anxiety disorders as a set of “rules” that we follow. These are implicit or unconscious rules that can describe fairly well the way we think and act when we are anxious. I thought, “How could we teach someone to be anxious and stay anxious?”, so I came up with the idea that there are specific rules that we follow. It’s as though nature has written a list of these rules into our brains. It’s the software that makes us anxious.
That list can be summarized as follows:
1. Detect Danger. The first rule is to identify a danger as quickly as possible so you can eliminate it or escape from it. When we are anxious we are Threat Detectors. We see danger everywhere. We look for it. Not because we want to feel anxious or make ourselves miserable. No, it’s because in a dangerous world, there are real threats that we need to be aware of. But even if the threats are not real today, our mental filter looks for them. If you fear spiders, you will be very quick to detect—or even to imagine—their presence. If you fear rejection by others, you will be quick to notice when people are frowning; ambiguous facial expressions will appear as hostile. If you worry about diseases, you may run from anyone who so much as coughs; the most casual item in the newspaper about an outbreak somewhere may grab your attention. When you have severe anxiety, you tend to move through the world in a constant state of alert that hovers just this side of alarm.
2. Catastrophize Danger. The next step is to automatically interpret the danger as an utter disaster. If someone is not friendly at a meeting, it means you are a pathetic loser. A dark spot on the skin indicates cancer. A slow or malfunctioning elevator is a sign that you will shortly be trapped inside with no way out. Nothing is a simple inconvenience; for you, a bump in the road is a land mine waiting to explode.
3. Control the Situation. The third step is to try and control your anxiety by controlling the things around you. If your hands have come in contact with germs, you race to the sink to wash. If you think you might have made a mistake at work, you return to the office and go over everything you did that day. If you’re grappling with obsessions, you try to banish obsessive thoughts from your mind (which only makes it worse, since the attempt itself is the product of an obsessive thought).
4. Avoid or Escape. An alternative to step three is either to avoid the threatening situation altogether (if it hasn’t yet materialized), or, if it has materialized, to remove yourself from it immediately. If you’re nervous about meeting someone at a party, you simply don’t go—or if you’ve already run into him there, you leave immediately. If you fear a panic attack, you stay out of any place that might trigger one: you refuse to get into an elevator, shop at a mall, or sit in a crowded theater. You avoid going to the zoo because you might have to look at a snake. Under no circumstances do you allow yourself to confront any of your deep-seated fears.
So, consider what you may feel anxious about or what you worry about. Are you focused on danger? Do you see danger approaching, danger under every rock, danger simply because you do not know for sure that it is safe. Are you a threat detector? Are you focused on rejection, even if there is no obvious evidence of rejection?
Do you think that what could happen would be a catastrophe? If you touched a railing, do you think you will contract a dreaded disease? If someone doesn’t like you, do you think that word will spread and everyone will reject you? Do you interpret a slight physical imperfection as the sign of a dreaded disease? Are you a catastrophizer?
Are you a control freak? Do you think you have to make sure everything is done just right? Do you think you have to get rid of every anxious feeling you have? Do you think you need to control your thoughts lest they go out of control and you end up completely insane?
Finally, do you avoid or escape from situations that are viewed us unpleasant? The minute you feel anxious on the subway, you need to get off? You avoid parties where you might get rejected and if you go you think you have to leave the minute you think someone is looking at you the wrong way.
How would your life be different if you were less likely to detect threat, less likely to catastrophize, less likely to need to know and control everything and less likely to avoid and escape.
Maybe overcoming anxiety involves breaking these rules.