Why Is It so Hard to Solve the Problem of Anxiety?
An explanation for why we keep trying—and failing—to "fix" our feelings.
Posted Feb 03, 2020
If you’re a regular reader of my Be Mighty Blog, you already know that the more you struggle to avoid uncomfortable sensations and emotions, the worse you feel and the more stuck you become (for more on this, see the entry titled "When You Are Stressed About Stress, You Are Stressed"). So if this is true, why do we keep doing it? For one, because it works—that is, all behavior has a function, it serves a purpose—the purpose of making us feel better in the short term. For example, procrastination provides relief when we give ourselves permission to put off a task (but of course, we then have the same amount to do with less time to do it).
We also keep doing it because we think we can. We think we should be able to solve “problems” inside our skin (uncomfortable sensations, emotions, and urges), because our experience solving outside problems tells us it’s possible (Hayes and Smith 2005).
Imagine you leave your house and realize you left your keys inside, locking yourself out. What might you do? Take a moment to consider some strategies for solving this problem. Perhaps you think about calling someone who has a spare key, walking around to check for other open doors or windows, contacting a locksmith, or keeping yourself busy until your partner or roommate returns. The point is that you were able to immediately generate a list of viable solutions to the locked-out problem, even if you’ve never been locked out before.
If your pets found themselves in a similar predicament, they would be in big trouble (or really excited about the newfound freedom, but you get my point). Other non-human species don’t have the same problem-solving abilities we humans do.
Things get tricky, though, when we attempt to apply our problem-solving strategies to our inner world. We think that because we can fix our locked-out problem, we should also be able to fix our worry, anxiety, stress, and other internal experiences.
Unfortunately, problems inside the skin don’t work quite the same as problems on the outside. Let’s break down the locked-out dilemma using the SOLVER technique from my book, Be Mighty:
State the problem: I am locked out of the house.
Origin of the problem, as this may provide a solution (for example, if I discovered my keys were in my pocket, I would retrieve the keys and unlock the door): I left the keys inside the house.
List possible outcomes if no action is taken: I will be stuck on my stoop until my roommate/partner comes home or forever if I don’t have a housemate. If the latter, I may starve, dehydrate, or freeze if no action is taken.
Vote for a solution and take action: Use my cell phone to call someone with a spare key, or a locksmith if there is no such person.
Evaluate effectiveness: I called a locksmith who let me back inside within an hour.
Recognize the lesson to prevent future problems: I will hide a spare key, so I’m not stuck if I forget my key in the future.
This would be a highly effective strategy for solving the locked-out problem and for preventing future locked-outness. So let’s try applying these problem SOLVER steps to solve the “problem” of panic attacks.
State the problem: I had a panic attack at the mall.
Origin of the problem, as this may provide a solution: Uhh... the mall? The crowds? The heat? Being dehydrated? (Here’s problem number one: We usually can’t answer this question and will wrongly attribute causes.)
List possible outcomes if no action is taken: heart attack, death, losing control, suffocating, fainting. (Here’s problem number two: This will be an unsubstantiated worry.)
Vote for a solution and take action: Get the heck out of the mall! Deep breathe while walking to the car; call a friend on the way home. If still not better, take a Xanax. (Here’s problem number three: These are arbitrarily chosen or based on “origins” identified above that are likely, not accurate.)
Evaluate effectiveness: My panic attack subsided in about 15 minutes, so I guess my solution worked. (Here’s problem number four: The panic attack would have subsided in 15 minutes anyway, but now escape is wrongfully getting the credit.)
Recognize the lesson to prevent future problems: Stay away from the mall; always carry Xanax, water, and phone, just in case; consider only going on outings with others rather than alone. (Here’s problem number five: major life restriction!)
Here’s one more example that demonstrates how attempting to problem-solve anxiety is ineffective and problematic:
State problem: I'm anxious on the way to a party.
Origin of problem: It’s because I have no social skills and am boring.
List outcomes if no action is taken: I’ll get to the party, and I’ll be humiliated!
Vote and do it: Don’t go to the party.
Evaluate effectiveness: Anxiety went away, and I wasn’t humiliated.
Recognize lesson: Stay away from social situations to prevent anxiety and humiliation.
Now it’s your turn. Choose an emotion or physical sensation you work hard to prevent, control, or escape. Repeat the SOLVER steps outlined above.
What does your experience tell you about the “success” or the costs of your solutions? Most likely, you might be able to “successfully” solve the “problem” of anxiety, fear, worry, or stress temporarily, but ultimately the more you try to escape your discomfort, the more stuck you become, and it returns each and every time (sometimes even bigger than before).
Hayes, S. & Smith, S. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Stoddard, J. (2019) Be Mighty: A Woman's Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.