What Holds People Back from Giving Up Anxiety-Based Habits?

There are more barriers to giving up disordered behavior than you might think.

Posted May 24, 2018

Source: Unsplash

I'm a big fan of wearing the same types of clothes most days to reduce decision fatigue.  I wear shorts, tank tops, and flip flops virtually everyday (adding a hoodie/coat and switching to sneakers in winter).  However, I had gotten into a habit of always wearing black versions of these.  There wasn't a reason for this. It wasn't that I particularly wanted to always wear black.  I'd just gotten into this habit, to the extent I felt inhibited about making another choice.  One day I went to buy black tank tops and spontaneously chose to buy all the other colors too.  I think I bought three of every color they had.

This is a very, very minor example (and not disordered) but a similar process can happen when people want to "give up" another, more significant pattern of behavior, including behaviors that are part of clinical anxiety disorders.  For example, when:

  • Someone with agoraphobia decides they want to try walking to their mailbox. 
  • Someone with an eating disorder decides to allow themselves a food that's on their forbidden list. 
  • Someone with a flying phobia decides to try booking a flight rather than enduring a 10 hour drive. 
  • Someone who's always drunk and jovial at parties wants to take a break from drinking without losing their friends.

Whenever someone wants to give up a pattern of behavior, there are psychological barriers to doing that, beyond overcoming fear related to the behavior itself.  Let's understand some of these. 

Important note: I'm not intending to minimize the struggle and distress of those suffering clinical problems, I'm merely highlighting the often overlooked barriers to change that aren't specific to the person's particular disorder.

1.  Fear of other people making snarky comments.

In my mind, wearing colors other than black was bound to elicit some snarky comments from my friends and family.  In reality, I don't think it did.  However, if you make a change, you may need to tolerate comments from others.  You probably overestimate what these will be, and underestimate your ability to cope successfully with these. Even positive comments may spike your anxiety, for reasons we'll get into below.  Believe in your ability to cope with whatever people say!

2. Fear of losing your supports.

People with problems often have supports in place to help them with those difficulties.  For example,  if you have panic disorder, a spouse or parent might drive you places.  It's common for people to fear that, if they branch out, their supports will decide they're not needed.  You might fear that your supports will see you making progress and assume you're capable of it being a permanent change or of overcoming all your areas of anxiety.

People who are seeing a therapist commonly fear losing the support of that therapist when their condition improves.  If you feel like this, recognize that in most cases you'll be able to go back to your therapist as needed.   It's usually your decision about whether you need to keep up sessions, and therapist don't typically "dump" their clients before their client feels ready.  If you're worried about coping without your therapist, print this article and take it along to show you therapist to start a discussion.

3.  Identity jitters.

We form our identities based on our behavior and thinking patterns.  You might strongly identify as someone who wears black, someone who is a vegetarian, or someone who has a particular disorder.  The thought of that identity shifting can be anxiety-provoking, often for no reason other than the fact that change is unsettling, and identity-related change is particularly so.  Humans are generally good at acclimating to new identities and we regularly do this during life transitions, like when becoming a parent or starting college.

Identity jitters can relate to losing certain support networks, for example someone recovering from an anxiety disorder might be involved in online communities related to that disorder. Or, someone who drinks a lot might be part of a social group for whom that's the norm.

4. Fear of not being able to go back to your old ways.

People who want to try stepping out of their comfort zone sometimes have a fear that they won't be able to go back to their old ways should they choose to do that.  Logically, there's nothing to stop you.  If you want to try giving up some aspects of disordered behavior, you can always go back to your old ways if you change your mind.  For example, if you have OCD and have a rule about washing your hands excessively, you can try not doing that and see how it goes.  Resuming your old ways is always an option.  The way I'm framing this might sound flippant, but at the end of the day, when people recover from anxiety disorders,  eating disorders or addictions, there is always an element of choosing to change.  If you're going to recover, at some point you'll make the choice to take that emotional and psychological risk.  It's incredibly scary to do so but it's part of the process.  You might feel more wiling to try changing if you think of yourself as experimenting with different behavior rather than seeing it as a commitment to permanent change straight out of the gate.

5. Fear of not having an "excuse" for lack of achievement.

Let's say you used to get As but since you've had your disorder, you've been getting Bs.  You're able to rationalize that you're intrinsically an A student but your problems are impacting your achievement.  What if you're still getting Bs once your disorder improves?  That would likely be more threatening to your self-identity as an A student.   Someone who is already working might have the same fears about climbing the career ladder.  You might have come to terms with the fact your problems are impacting your success, but feel scared about testing out whether you would succeed more when you're not so distracted and consumed by those issues.  For a start, you don't know what will happen.  Secondly, staying stuck in your problems still isn't a good solution. 

It's logical to assume you'll achieve more when you're psychologically healthier.  However, we all do self-sabotaging things, whether we've got mental health problems or not.   And these will need your ongoing attention.  We all get in our own way in some respects, and you'll be no exception, even when you've recovered from whatever clinical problems you currently have.

Wrapping Up

Nothing I've said here is meant to suggest that people can just choose to give up psychological problems.  Spontaneous recovery happens occasionally, but it's not the norm.  I'm well aware of how out of control people typically feel when they're suffering from a mental health problem.  There are many barriers to change and the ones I've written about here are valid concerns that aren't typically discussed.  They're barriers that need to be overcome, in addition to those related to the problem itself.  If the points I've mentioned are holding you back, there's no reason to feel embarrassed. If you have a therapist, these are good topics to discuss with them. 

For people who aren't suffering from a disorder but who feel stuck in some of their patterns, I've pointed out that there's also a little bit of overlap (2-3 of my 5 points) between these struggles and what people face when they want to make any change that has identity implications, like say, deciding to eat meat after a long period of being a vegetarian, or deciding to wear bright colors after a long history of wearing only black!

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