People use lots of words to describe their struggle with chronic anxiety disorders.
Frustrating. Irrational. Crazy. These are some of the most common words my clients have used.
But here’s the most accurate, powerful, and useful word: counterintuitive.
Anxiety disorders are counterintuitive. If I could only use one word to help you with a chronic anxiety disorder, this would be it. Contained within this word is the key information you need for recovery.
Most problems we face on a regular basis respond well to a common sense approach. If I feel cold, I can put on a sweater, or turn up the thermostat. Either response will help me feel warmer. If a room is too dark, I can turn on a light, or open a blind to allow sunlight to enter. If I feel tired and sleepy, I can take a nap.
Problem solved! My immediate, intuitive idea of a solution to most problems will give me the outcome I want.
But some problems are counterintuitive.
If you’re skidding toward a phone pole on an icy road, where should you steer? Your instinct is probably to steer away from the pole. But that will lead you to crash. Where should you steer when you skid? Steer for the pole — aim right at it — and you’ll slide away from it. Counterintuitive.
You bring a new puppy home, and he gets off the leash, running down the street. How can you get that puppy back? Your instinct might be to chase it. But he’s got four legs to your two, so that won’t help much. Run away from the puppy — now you’re both playing “chase the owner” and all is well. Counterintuitive.
You’re at the beach, and a big wave rolls in as you wade toward the deeper water. Where should you go? You might have the idea to run for the shore, but you’ll probably end up swallowing water and sand if you do. Dive into that wave, though, and it will pass gently over you. Counterintuitive.
You’re caught in quicksand! How can you get out? Okay, you get the idea. While many, probably most problems we encounter will respond well to an intuitive, common sense response, some problems are counterintuitive. Your intuitive idea of how to solve such problems — your gut instinct — won’t just fail to solve the problem, it will make the problem worse!
That’s the definition of frustration! The harder I try, the worse it gets.
And when people get snared in a counterintuitive problem, they also tend to think it’s their fault, that there’s something wrong with them — they’re too weak, too cowardly, too stupid, too whatever, and that that’s why they haven’t been able to solve the problem. They get stuck in a downward cycle of blame and shame.
But if this fits your experience with chronic anxiety — the harder I try, the worse it gets — then the problem probably isn’t you. The problem is more likely that you’re trying methods that do make it worse. You need some very different methods, counterintuitive methods. If your responses to chronic anxiety symptoms have been making them worse, you probably will benefit from doing the opposite of what you’re been trying.
If you feel short of breath during a panic attack, you might try really hard to inhale. But that’s likely to result in more labored, shallow, and uncomfortable breathing. What’s the opposite of an inhale? An exhale! Start with a gentle sigh, to first relax the muscles of your upper body, before you take an inhale. And take that inhale from your belly, not your chest.
Feeling afraid on an airplane, and desperately hanging on to the armrests? Let go, relax your hands, and let them go idle. You don’t need to hold yourself in, that’s what the seatbelt is for!
Feeling afraid while driving, and clutching the wheel in a death grip? One at a time, uncurl your fingers from the wheel and use a lighter grip to drive.
When you recognize the counterintuitive aspect of chronic anxiety disorders, this will help you find responses that will be much more reliable in fostering recovery.