Anxiety Coping Tools Can Backfire: It's Not Your Fault

Coping skills aren't the answer — more important is how they are applied

Posted Feb 02, 2020

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If you are reading this blog, you may be experiencing intense anxiety and trying very hard to apply what you read in order to manage your anxiety on your own. Or you may be in therapy, trying to use techniques you are taught, and still feeling anxious, phobic or worried. This blog will address some of the reasons why your conscientious efforts may be failing to provide relief.

Anxiety symptoms and sticky minds are maintained by several distinct processes: these include avoidance, negative reinforcement, entanglement, and paradoxical effort.  The failure of common anxiety management tools can be attributed to inadvertently triggering and maintaining these mechanisms, even while diligently using the coping tools. We have talked about this in past blogs and books, and encourage you to look at these for additional details.

Here is why you might be getting demoralized and stuck with only partial relief: Coping skills aren’t the complete answer:  It is the attitude with which skills are applied that makes the crucial difference. 

Coping skills that struggle against symptoms will work backward. Techniques applied in an urgent effortful manner will trigger paradoxical effort and negative reinforcement, and run the risk of increasing avoidance and entanglement, resulting in a stickier mind and greater anxiety.  

Trying to avoid or control symptoms is the fuel that powers them. It carries with it the message that anxious, disturbing or intrusive thoughts are important signals or warnings, and that the physical discomforts of anxious arousal are dangerous, which they are not. Allowing and embracing discomfort lets the mind and body calm down by themselves.

This is not an easy concept to grasp. Here are some other ways to illustrate the idea. The more you try not to think about something, the more you think about it. The harder you try to not notice an argument next door, the more riveted will be your attention. If you tense up to fight your anxiety, you are adding tension to what is already there, resulting in even more: what you resist tends to persist.

Why is that? Because if you are doing something to lower your anxiety, and yet you still feel anxious, your tendency will be to try harder (paradoxical effort), give up, or avoid.

Anxiety lives in the future: it is fueled by scary what if thoughts. Think of coping tools as ways to help you stay more focused on the present, and not ways to lower your anxiety.

If you are anxious while driving, you can turn on the radio to try to block out fearful thoughts and sensations. This is distraction. If you are doing this to lower your anxiety, you will then feel the need to check to see if it is working. You might say to yourself, “I hope this works. I’m not sure it is. What if it doesn’t? Am I trying it hard enough? Doing it correctly?” Distraction only works temporarily and, unfortunately, contributes to higher anxiety in the long run.

On the other hand, if your purpose in turning on the radio is to listen to music with this attitude — “while my imagination goes nuts and my body feels uncomfortable, I might as well listen to music because I do not need to monitor it”— this is helpful.

Here are some coping techniques that can so easily be misused, have the wrong attitude or convey a struggling message that ultimately backfires.

  • Why does “breathe your anxiety away” not work for many?  There is evidence that lower volume rhythmic breathing reduces hyperventilation, and that attention to breathing helps to anchor yourself in the present. But when done in order to relax you can get stuck on trying to breathe right “or else," and trigger additional anxiety.
  • When does mindful awareness not help despite its promise? Mindfulness is a wonderful tool to help you stay focused in the here and now. As with any skill, it gets better with practice. Being mindful is not a way to stop anxiety: it is about learning a new relationship of accepting and not judging your sensory and mental experience. It is about noticing, not fixing. It is about being willing to experience whatever is there in the present moment. 
  • Another ineffective tool is yelling "stop" (or snapping a rubber band on your wrist) whenever disturbing thoughts occur. This makes the thought come back more often and more intensely. The mind feels even more sticky.
  • What about telling yourself reassuring things? This is often called positive self-talk, and it fails to soothe anxiety in the long run. Why is it so hard to convince your irrational mind to become rational? Why won’t reassurance and self-calming stick: In short, you can’t solve too much thinking with more thinking — it is yet another form of struggling. The better choice is to switch your attitude: the anxious worry is not important and not worth engaging.  Don’t argue: it will always argue back. Instead, notice that you are having the thought, accept and allow the anxious feelings,  and let time pass.
  • And what about eating healthy, exercising and reducing stress? These might all be good for you, but they won’t stop panic, intrusive thoughts and worry. Anxiety symptoms are stress-sensitive but they are not caused by stress. Jogging for general health and wellbeing is just fine. Running a mile to try to stop thinking a bad thought is not the answer.

Here is the general rule: Anything is ok is if it done while you allow anxious physical or emotional discomfort to be there and let time pass. The very same behavior or thoughts will contribute to making symptoms worse if it is done in order to get rid of anxiety. The body and mind right themselves — no matter how anxious you feel — if they are allowed to do so. Adding insistence, urgency, or shame takes you away from the present, and undoes the natural calming process. It is the attitude, not the technique, that makes the difference.