The 3 Parts of Anxiety: Thoughts, Emotions, and Behaviors
Which can you control and which can you not?
Posted Dec 26, 2019
Everyone wishes they could control their anxiety, but this is a trap! Any anxiety problem has several different parts to it. There are parts you can control and there are parts you can't control. It's important to understand which is which so you don't waste your time trying to change something that you do not have the power to change.
There are 3 parts to an anxiety problem: anxious thoughts, the emotion of anxiety itself, and anxious behaviors. Let's go through each of them and then what to do about them.
Anxious thoughts are the phrases, messages, and images that run through your head when you are anxious. They are the "inner monologue" that is always running in your mind. Minds are always saying something; they never shut up, even if it's not always about anxiety. These automatic thoughts just "pop up" in your head; you don't have to do anything to make them happen, they just happen.
Because this is an automatic, passive process on your part, it is NOT something you have control over. No one can control what thoughts pop up into their minds. If I tell you "don't think about a pink elephant", what are you going to think about? A pink elephant! You can't help it, no one can.
Thoughts do not respond to efforts to control them. If you try to not think a thought, that will be all you can think about. This is not a problem you alone have, this is simply how thoughts work in all our minds. You can't control your automatic thoughts.
The Feeling of Anxiety
Here we mean the emotion of anxiety itself, the feelings you have when you are anxious. The specific physical feelings of anxiety vary from person to person but typically include tightness or pain in the chest, a light-headed or "out of it" feeling in the head, muscle tension, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath. You probably experience these feelings as uncomfortable or even painful and understandably want to get them to go away. You WANT to control your anxiety. But is that possible?
What does your experience tell you happens when you try to make yourself calm down? Probably that when you try to calm down, the anxiety actually gets worse.
Like anxious thoughts, the feeling of anxiety does not respond to efforts to control it. The more you try to make your anxiety go down, the worse it gets. We can do another little thought experiment here to prove this:
Let's say I hook you up to a machine that senses your anxiety and will tell me how anxious you feel at any given moment. If I then say to you “Don't feel anxious”, how do you think you will feel? Probably there will be some anxiety. But let's say that I then up the stakes. Let's say that I point a gun at your leg and say "Okay, don't feel anxious and if you do feel anxious and I see it on this machine, I'm going to shoot you in the leg". Now how are you going to feel? Even more anxious! The anxiety will be even worse because now you are putting pressure on yourself to not feel anxious.
Not only does anxiety not respond when you try to control it; the more pressure you put on yourself to not feel anxious, the worse it gets! Anxiety is not something you have control over. If people could control anxiety, my job as a psychologist would not exist and you would not be reading this article. We would simply all choose to not feel anxious when we didn't want it and that would be that. But anxiety doesn't work that way, it is not something we can control.
The last piece of the puzzle is behavior: our actions, what we do. When you are anxious, you probably behave in ways that help you avoid triggers for your anxiety (e.g. avoiding social functions if you are afraid of what other people will think of you).
With behaviors, it is fairly obvious: we DO have control over our behavior. Behavior is the one and only thing in life that we actually have control over. For instance, in the above example, even if you are anxious about going to a party, you DO control whether or not you go to the party. You can choose to go or not go, you control that.
What to Do
So you have control over your anxious behavior, but not your anxious thoughts or the feeling of anxiety itself. However, I'm guessing that if you are struggling with anxiety and reading this article, you probably spend quite a bit of time trying to control your anxious thoughts and feelings.
The thing to do instead is to practice acceptance: allow the anxious thoughts to be there exactly as they are; give up on trying to control them (because they will be there either way, you can't control them). Allow the anxious feelings to be there exactly as they are too; give up on trying to control them (again because they will be there either way, you can't control them).
Instead, focus on changing your anxious behavior. If you're anxious about going to a party, go to the party. This is the basis of what works for making anxiety better in the long run anyway, which is facing your fears (Exposure Therapy).
But when clients start therapy with me, I notice that they typically have a misconception about the order in which things change. Most clients think that if they could only change their negative thoughts to be more positive, they could feel better and then they'd be able to do the things they think anxiety stops them from doing.
In other words, they think the order of change is: thoughts change first, then emotions, then behaviors. But unfortunately, because they can't control anxious thoughts or anxious feelings, they get stuck on those first two steps and never actually get to doing the things they wish they were doing.
In reality, the order of change is the opposite: behavior has to change first and if you do that, emotion changes and thoughts change in the long run.
If you simply start doing the things you think you can't do because of anxiety, your brain eventually learns that those things are not dangerous and the feelings of anxiety naturally decrease over time. When that happens, the anxious thoughts also naturally decrease over time. But this only happens by taking different actions first.
So instead of beating your head against the wall trying to change something that you can't control, try going and doing the things you wish you could do now and see what happens. By facing your fears and taking different action, your life will open up, you will gain freedom, and you won't be wasting your time anymore trying to change things you have no control over.