Anxiety: The Perpetual Game of Mental Whac-A-Mole
What to do when you lose the battle against your anxious thoughts.
Posted March 30, 2017
Regardless of the type of anxiety you experience, you know it feels exhausting. This is for a couple of reasons. First, anxiety wears us out because it’s characterized by sympathetic nervous system arousal. This autonomic arousal, known as the “stress response” or the “fight or flight response,” is responsible for about 1,400 biochemical and psychophysiological changes in the body that make us feel tense, vigilant, nervous, and ready to act. While this can be helpful for short periods of time, such as when we swerve to avoid having a car accident, or when we can benefit from an extra boost of energy before an athletic competition, it can be unhelpful if we stay in this state too long or at the wrong time (such as when you’re trying to fall asleep at night). Unfortunately, it can be difficult to control when we feel anxious, and to what extent, and the result for some people is that they feel anxious or worried all the time.
Second, anxiety is exhausting because of how it impacts our thoughts. Anxiety tells us that there is always something that needs attention, or needs worried about, and it won’t let us relax until we’ve addressed all of those worrisome thoughts. But here’s the problem: It often feels as though you can never quite squash all of the thoughts you believe to be the cause of anxiety. This, too, contributes to a constant state of anxiety.
For people suffering from anxiety, worrisome thoughts seem to function like a never-ending game of Whac-A-Mole, the popular children’s arcade game where you hit plastic moles that keep popping up with a padded mallet. But unlike Whac-A-Mole, there is no end to the anxious thoughts that pop up. People suffering from this unending game of mental Whac-A-Mole can become very good at squashing each worry, one after another. However, while they become skilled at talking themselves out of believing each anxious thought, there is always another worry waiting to “pop up.” After a while squashing these anxious thoughts becomes exhausting, and ultimately it just doesn’t work.
So what does work? To address mental Whac-A-Mole consider working on reducing the high stress response underlying the thoughts. While this may not be sufficient for stopping the Whac-A-Mole completely, it is often necessary, as it is frequently the case that underlying autonomic arousal fuels anxious thoughts. What happens is the nervous energy, which we can feel in our body, is picked up by our thoughts, which then try to make sense out of the anxiety. It does this by creating thoughts consistent with those anxious feelings. Thus, the problem is not always the anxious thoughts, rather, a big part of the problem can be the underlying arousal and anxious sensations. If you can tackle the stress response and the related physical and emotional reactions, it can be a major step toward managing anxious thoughts as well. Here are some techniques that can reduce a high stress response:
- Deep, diaphragmatic breathing, especially techniques where exhales are extended (meaning, longer than the inhales).
- Progressive muscle relaxation or autogenic training, which can increase heart rate variability (thereby promoting relaxation).
If your anxiety feels overwhelming or difficult to manage, consider seeking mental health services, as professional treatment for anxiety can be very effective for many people!