Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues people have. For that reason, there are a lot of different treatments for anxiety. Some of the most common anxiety treatments include therapy, medication, or lifestyle adjustments. But not all treatments are equally effective, and not all of them work for everyone.
Anxiety Treatment without Medicine
Many of my clients wish to cure their anxiety without taking any medicine. And that’s a very normal stance to take. It does mean narrowing the amount of options for treating anxiety to psychological interventions for anxiety. But there’s a big difference between taking a pill once a day versus having to sit down with a professional for an hour a week and talk about your problems. This makes a lot of people question whether anxiety treatment really works.
The truth is that there are a lot of treatments for anxiety, but not all of them work. The reason for this is a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of anxiety.
See, many people believe that anxiety can be cured if you do the opposite of the thing related to anxiety. It’s kind of like taking a weight loss approach and applying it to anxiety. If you stop eating so much junk, and stop sitting around so much, and instead eat healthier and work out, you will lose weight.
But anxiety doesn’t really work like that.
How Anxiety Works
Anxiety is most commonly a fear about fear. People with anxiety disorders worry about feeling anxious, because they confuse real threats and danger with feelings or thoughts associated with danger.
A person without an anxiety disorder might be afraid of a plane crashing, and think about the plane crashing when they are on the plane. But they recognize that thinking about the plane crashing, and the plane actually crashing, are two different things.
However, a person with anxiety will struggle to slow themselves down when thinking about the plane crashing and recognize that this thought does not have any connection to the present moment and their reality.
This has led to some popular, but ineffective treatments for anxiety.
1. Don’t Think About It
If thinking about something dangerous or threatening is the cause of the anxiety, then shouldn’t you just stop thinking about it?
This sounds like a straightforward approach. But the problem is that this is moving in the opposite direction to overcoming anxiety.
People who are anxious typically avoid things that make them feel anxious. A person with social anxiety disorder might avoid public speaking, out of fear of making a fool of themselves.
If you try to not think about something, you are again trying to avoid something; the thoughts of the thing you’re afraid of.
Remembering earlier we mentioned that people who are anxious struggle to discern between their thoughts and reality?
So in this case, if you avoid thinking about something, it's not that different from avoiding doing something, because the thought of doing something and actually doing it are so close together for people with anxiety.
Avoiding thinking about something might sound like a good cure for anxiety, but it rarely works in the long run.
2. Think positive
If avoiding thoughts about something doesn’t work, then maybe you should instead try to change those thoughts by thinking positive?
Again, this idea makes sense on the surface. People with anxiety often think of the worst case scenario. They worry about all of the terrible things that could go wrong in the future.
So it's natural to believe that you should just think of something positive instead. Rather than focusing on the negative outcomes, why not just think of all of the great things that could happen? Instead of getting rejected when you ask for someone’s phone number, they might smile and happily agree to a date.
However, if you slow down and think about it, thinking positive is just another way of avoiding thoughts. But in this case, instead of just trying to ‘not think about it’, you’re just thinking about something positive. Either way, it’s an avoidance of anxious thoughts.
3. Breathe Slower
Another suggestion many people have for those with anxiety is to tell people to slow their breathing down. One common symptom for people with anxiety is to experience faster, shallow breaths, related to feelings of panic or fear.
Therefore, it supposedly makes sense to just change how you breathe by taking deep breaths. This will force your breathing to slow down, and when you slow down your breathing you will feel less anxious.
The challenges with breathing many people with anxiety experience are linked to hyperventilating. This is the result of too much air going into the lungs. This then means that carbon dioxide levels drop, because the ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen has changed. As a result, people experience dizziness, lightheadedness, and tingling or numbing sensations.
So slowing down and taking deep breaths can actually make the problem worse by adding even more oxygen to the lungs. The resulting sensations can then escalate a person's anxiety because they feel frightened that they are not breathing properly and that something is wrong with them.
The solution instead is diaphragmatic breathing, which involves regular and rhythmic breaths to return the breath to its normal rhythm.
Where Can You Get Help With Anxiety
Seeing a therapist is a great way to begin your journey of overcoming your anxiety. It is important to understand what anxiety is before working on treating it. Your therapist should help you to recognize what exact kind of anxiety you have, what it is that you’re afraid of, and then help you work towards overcoming your anxiety through exposure. In the end, it is confronting your fears that helps you to overcome your anxiety, rather than avoiding them.
Shaun McMahon is a Melbourne based psychotherapist who works with clients struggling with anxiety. He conducts sessions both in person and online, and is currently accepting new clients. If you are interested in learning more about how Shaun can help with your anxiety, you can arrange a FREE 15 minute consultation by clicking here.
Source: (2014) Seif, M. N., Winston, S. What Every Therapist Needs To Know About Anxiety Disorders: Key Concepts, Insights and Interventions. Routledge: London.