The Real Reason Why Your Anxiety Isn’t Getting Better

January 14th, 2013
By: Dr. Anoosha Avni
Registered Psychologist

If you’re struggling with anxiety or worry, you’ve probably been told by well meaning friends, and even some health care professionals, to exercise more frequently, eat better, sleep more, make time each day for relaxation exercises, sign up for yoga, or take vitamin supplements or anti-anxiety medication.

Guess what?

None of these strategies will work in the long run. In fact, they can make the anxiety you’re experiencing worse.

How is this possible? What these strategies teach us is that intense anxiety is abnormal and must be avoided or managed to live a worthwhile life. This is not true. Intense anxiety is not abnormal; it’s not a sign of weakness; and it’s not a sign of ‘bad genes.’

Many people often confuse fear with anxiety. Fear is an intense, present-oriented emotion needed for survival when your health or safety is threatened. When you’re afraid, your body will do many things to make sure you get moving to take care of yourself, like increase your heartbeat and blood pressure, or stop digestion (who has the energy to digest a pie when you’re faced with a black bear?). Sometimes, your body will ‘freeze’ to prevent you from being harmed even further in the face of danger. These are all adaptive responses to fear that will help you take fast action to protect yourself.

Anxiety, by contrast, is a future-oriented emotion. People who are anxious feel a sense of doom, worry, or apprehension about the future. Their muscles become tenser. The bodily changes that accompany anxiety are much less intense than those associated with fear. Yet anxiety can last a lot longer than fear, sometimes for weeks, months, or even years. How is this possible? It’s because anxiety tends to be fed more by what your mind says than by real sources of threat or danger.

Anxiety is not the enemy; it’s the rigid avoidance of anxiety that’s preventing you from living a calmer and healthier life. Research has shown that avoidance is the most important factor responsible for turning anxieties, fears, and worries into serious physical and mental health problems. Avoidance means you’re running away from the people, places, or situations that bring about unpleasant feelings. No amount of exercise, sleep, or anti-anxiety medication will help with avoidance behaviours.

So if the well-meaning advice of your friends, family, and health care professionals isn’t helpful, then what can you do? Stay tuned for my next article on the most important step you need to take to stop struggling with anxiety and start living your best life.

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