Anxiety Myth #9: You can overcome anxiety disorder without having to deal with the underlying factors at the root of problematic anxiety.
Another common myth about anxiety disorder is that you can overcome it without having to identify and address the underlying factors at the root of problematic anxiety.
Anxiety can be defined as:
A state of apprehension, uncertainty, and fear resulting from the anticipation of a real or imagined event, situation, or circumstance that we think might be threatening.
Anxiety is a state that results from a certain style of behavior (how we think and act). That style of behavior is imagining that something can cause us harm. Imagining is a willful cognitive process, which means we are completely responsible for engaging in that style of behavior. More on this in a moment.
Behaving in an apprehensive manner causes anxiety. Nothing else does!
Behaving in an apprehensive manner (worried, fretful, fearful, nervous) causes the body to activate the stress response, which causes the body to secrete stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots in the body to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it—which is the reason this response is often referred to as the fight or flight response or the emergency response.
So, anxiety is a mindset that causes physiological and emotional consequences, since our thinking causes our emotions. For more information about emotions and their cause, Recovery Support members can read the “Emotions and Feelings” section in Chapter 5.
In order to become anxious, we first have to conclude that a threat (some situation, circumstance, person, animal, thing, etc.) in our future can harm us AND conclude how much harm the threat can cause. Once we’ve made these conclusions, THEN we become anxious if we believe the threat can harm us. While these conclusions can seem automatic, they are deliberate cognitive processes we CHOOSE to engage in.
As mentioned above, to become anxious, we first have to identify a threat and assess it to see if it can harm us, and if so, to what degree. If we believe there is a potential for harm, we become anxious. The degree of anxiousness is directly proportional to the degree of potential harm. In other words, the more serious we believe the threat is, the more anxious we become.
Again, becoming anxious requires all of this thinking and concluding. These cognitive processes are willful. This is why anxiety is caused by behavior (the ways we choose to think and act) and not caused by a biological, chemical, or genetic problem.
If we don’t think we’ll be in danger, we won’t be anxious. If we think we could be in danger, we can become anxious. Again, anxiety starts with behavior: the ways we think about a future situation or circumstance.
For more information, Recovery Support members can read the “What is fear?” section in Chapter 6 about the three conditions of fear, how these conditions relate to anxiety, and why all three conditions require cognitive processing (thinking).
No biological, chemical, or genetic reason CAUSES us to behave in an apprehensive manner. We behave this way because we learned to cope with adversity, uncertainty, and risk in an apprehensive manner as we grew up. The more often we behaved apprehensively, such as worry, the more automatic it became.
Anxiety is caused by behavior. Therefore, we need to identify and address the reasons why we cope with adversity, uncertainty, and risk in an apprehensive manner before anxiety can be minimized and eliminated. Any other approach doesn’t deal with the core of the problem but only attempts to manage the symptoms of the problem.
With this in mind, no, you can’t overcome anxiety disorder without dealing with the underlying factors at the root of problematic anxiety. To successfully address a struggle with problematic anxiety, we need to deal with the behaviors AND the reasons for the behaviors, which we call the underlying factors of anxiety: the behaviors, situations, and circumstances that motivate apprehensive behavior.
That said, there are many ways to treat anxiety symptoms without having to deal with the underlying factors of anxiety. But merely addressing anxiety symptoms isn’t overcoming problematic anxiety. It’s just treating the symptoms of the problem but not the problem itself.
Remember, anxiety symptoms are actually symptoms of stress. We call them anxiety symptoms because behaving apprehensively is the main source of the stress that causes the body to become overly stressed and symptomatic. You can read more about “What causes anxiety symptoms?” in the Anxiety 101 section.
Treating anxiety symptoms is just Part One of the recovery process. Part Two is dealing with the underlying factors that cause problematic anxiety. You can read more information about the Two Levels of Anxiety Disorder Recovery.
Since anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress, there are many ways to address them. Merely reducing your body’s stress and giving it ample time to respond is all that is required. But for most anxious people, we also need to deal with our anxious behaviors so that the body CAN experience a reduction in stress, and sufficiently for symptoms to subside. This is where most anxious people struggle: the inability to reduce their anxious behaviors, which causes the body to remain overly stressed and symptomatic.
That's why Level Two recovery is required. Without identifying and successfully addressing anxiety’s underlying factors, it’s unrealistic to think meaningful and lasting anxiety disorder recovery can be attained.
If you don’t deal with the cause of the problem, the problem and its symptoms can remain.
So again, no, you can’t successfully address anxiety disorder without dealing with the underlying factors at the root of problematic anxiety. To successfully treat a struggle with problematic anxiety, we need to deal with the behaviors AND the reasons for the behaviors, which we call the underlying factors of anxiety: the behaviors, situations, and circumstances that motivate apprehensive behavior.
Dealing with the cause of the anxiety problem – the underlying factors of anxiety – addresses the problem AND its symptoms. This is the way to lasting success over anxiety unwellness (anxiety disorder).
How can this myth hamper recovery?
Believing you don’t have to address anxiety’s underlying factors in order to recover from anxiety unwellness can cause a long-term struggle with it. As we mentioned, until the root causes of anxiety unwellness are identified and successfully addressed, problematic anxiety will continue. Making meaningful and lasting recovery requires dealing with anxiety’s core issues.
Yes, achieving Level One recovery is great. But achieving only that level of recovery doesn’t solve the anxiety unwellness problem, only its symptoms. Those who achieve Level One recovery only often have many episodes of anxiety and its symptoms off and on throughout their lives. To us, this isn’t full recovery but only managing symptoms. For complete recovery, Level Two recovery work is required…and that work is identifying and addressing anxiety’s underlying factors. Only this level of recovery leads to success over anxiety unwellness.
We’ve seen many anxious people gain success over their symptoms only for them to return again and again. This is a common problem with achieving Level One recovery only: rebound after rebound after rebound.
How can this myth make things worse?
If you believe you don’t have to deal with the core causes of anxiety unwellness (Level Two recovery work), you could become discouraged with your recovery when you don’t see satisfactory results, Then, give up on recovery and your struggle with problematic anxiety could persist throughout your entire life. Or worse, you might conclude that you are the exception and can’t recover. Both mindsets can lead to further needless struggle with problematic anxiety (and depression).
But if you believe working at Level Two anxiety recovery could bring success over your struggle with problematic anxiety, that realization alone can bring hope, which can alleviate a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and feelings of being depressed. And, as you work at Level Two recovery and experience success, your confidence will grow and anxiety will become less of an issue over time. As your progress continues to build, you can return to a normal lifestyle and one that is free of problematic anxiety.
In addition to overcoming problematic anxiety, accomplishing Level Two recovery work also greatly enriches our lives as the skills attained during Level Two recovery can enhance our overall life experience. Being confident, healthy self-esteem, healthy relationships, and engaging in life in a positive, upbeat manner are some of the other benefits of addressing anxiety’s underlying factors.
Anxiety isn’t about something that’s ‘gone wrong’ and that you can’t correct. Anxiety is about behavior that all of us can change and control when we know how. Working with an experienced anxiety therapist, coach, or counsellor can teach you those important skills.
All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced problematic anxiety and know how out of control it can seem. But we also know that there are many ways we can gain control over it. Getting the right information, help, and support, as well as making the appropriate behavioral changes, is all that is required to successfully treat anxiety unwellness for good.
There are many reasons to be optimistic. Anyone can learn and adopt less anxious ways of approaching life. Consequently, no one needs to suffer with anxiety unwellness. Life can be great again…and without the burden of problematic anxiety!
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - we call these core causes the underlying factors of anxiety - a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated September 2016.