The paradox of anxiety

Anxiety is a very easy to understand. When we are confronted with a danger, we feel anxiety. This anxiety then pushes us to protect ourselves by either fighting against the danger or by running away from it. Very simple. But what happens if you are afraid of being anxious? Where do you run or how do you fight?

While not pleasant, anxiety goes away when we are once again safe (for ex., if you are a passenger in a car driven by a reckless speed demon, you will feel MUCH calmer when safe at home). This is normal. Problem anxiety, on the other hand, occurs when we fear our own anxiety instead of an actual danger. In such cases, we start to avoid situations where we can feel it. We end up trying to control the circumstances that we find ourselves in, or the feelings that we may experience in those situations. We then constantly worry about not having the kind of control that we need to feel perfectly safe. Knowing that we cannot be perfectly safe, or perfectly in control, creates anticipatory anxiety and voila! The anxiety we feel then triggers the anxiety mechanism and off it goes.

This week, I published a column using one of my favourite stories. It can be considered by some to be on the border of bad taste but I think it is just too perfect an illustration of the paradox of anxiety that I decided to go with it. It is a simple story that shows how we only panic when we fight (or resist) it, and never panic in situations where it wouldn’t matter if we did.

Giant Wet Cave (Source: Une Grande Caverne Humide; Journal Métro, March 11, 2008)

OK, let’s see if I can talk about vaginas and social anxiety while still keeping it tasteful.

Social anxiety is the most common fear. We all must face it from time to time such as before a presentation, or on a first date. However, there is a difference between normal and debilitating social anxiety. A certain level of social anxiety is necessary. Worrying about what others think makes us aware of our social roles and produces better interpersonal skills. But like other forms of anxiety, it is all a question of degree. Here’s a story about what happens when we try too hard to avoid it.

Please, not now!

“It looked like a giant wet cave!” said a socially anxious young man once while describing the worst panic attack he had in months. He suffered from a social phobia, a fear of looking like a fool in the presence of others. He was sitting in his first class of a human sexuality course in university. The first class usually includes a basic anatomy lesson. When the slide came up with a picture of a vagina, complete with arrows pointing out the various parts and their Latin names, the man was struck with a thought. “If I panic now, and have to run out of class, everyone will think it’s because I’m uncomfortable with the vagina!” Needless to say, that’s when the panic hit him.

The fear of fear and the paradox of anxiety
Anxiety normally protects us. The problem arises when we begin to be afraid of our anxiety response. This fear makes the anxiety mechanism turn on itself. This simple story illustrates well the paradox of anxiety; when we are afraid of being anxious, we create more anxiety. Panic seems to only strike when we do not want it to, and never seems to hit when we allow it to. In other words, all efforts to control or avoid anxiety only seem to make it worse. Debilitating anxiety is actually a reflection of the efforts we make to resist it.

The only true solution
This particular young man was unable to panic in my office, no matter how much he tried. The reason was simple; it didn’t matter if he did. What this suggests is that the best way to control anxiety is not to resist it but to question why it would be so bad to feel it. Being or looking anxious in front of others may not be pleasant, but it isn’t a catastrophe. If you allow yourself to look a little nervous, chances are you won’t. If you try to control your anxiety, however, there will be giant wet caves everywhere you turn.

Tagged as , .

Posted in Anxiety.

Posted on 15 Mar 2008

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


2 comments to The paradox of anxiety

  1. Social Anxiety
    On Mar 27th 2018 at 17:37

    Indeed resisting anxiety is the worst thing you could do. Question why you are having these responses and you will be well on your way to addressing the problem directly. I made a video explaining this topic in great detail. if you want to check it out, ill leave a link below. Have a great day everyone

    This is what I like to see. Very real practical advice on the subject. Thanks a million for this.

    I made a video about social anxiety earlier, with the intention to explain this disorder in as much detail as possible. If any of you want to check it out, ill leave the link down below. Have a great day everyone and best of luck

  2. Social Anxiety
    On Apr 19th 2018 at 17:36

    Anxiety can be tough, but with the right tools and practices.

    I made a video listing 7 ways to deal with social anxiety. I think this will really help you all out a lot.