Why Anxiety Disorder Sufferers Can't Just Snap Out Of It
Anxiety disorder sufferers often hear people say to them, "Just snap out of it!" Believe me, if they could just snap out of a struggle with anxiety disorder, they would. I don't know of anyone who enjoys struggling with problematic anxiety and all of the physical symptoms it can cause.
Since anxiety disorder isn't caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, a biological problem with the brain, or by our genes, to the untrained eye, it might seem that anxiety disorder sufferers can just simply stop being anxious and get on with their lives. There are good reasons, however, why they can't. Three of those reasons are:
1. The root cause of anxiety disorder takes help, effort, and time to change.
Anxiety is caused by apprehensive behavior.
Apprehensive can be defined as: fearful that something bad, unpleasant, and/or harmful may happen.
Behavior can be defined as: the ways a person thinks and acts.
So anxiety is caused by the ways a person thinks and acts in a fearful manner.
Anxiety disorder, therefore, occurs when a person thinks and acts in overly apprehensive ways, and when the results of that type of behavior interfere with a normal lifestyle.
For more information, see our section Anxiety 101.
Anxiety and anxiety disorder result from a certain style of behavior (apprehensive behavior and overly apprehensive behavior). Behaviors, for the most part, are learned.
Research has shown that we learn our behaviors (how we interact and cope with life) at a very early age. For example, most of our behaviors are learned and habituated before the age of eight years old. So most of the ways we interact and cope with life are formed during our formative years (early childhood).
Sure, we can modify, change, and adapt our behaviors anytime and at any age. But most of us run on ‘autopilot’ using the behaviors and coping styles we learned during our formative years. And many of us don’t even realize that some of our behaviors and coping styles are unhealthy…since they seem normal to us.
Once our behaviors and coping styles become seemingly ‘hardwired,’ it can take a lot of work and time to identify what they are, why we have them, why they are unhealthy, what healthy behavior looks like, and to make the necessary changes required to reduce and eliminate an overly apprehensive approach to life. For many of us, these changes can take a long time to make.
Since anxiety is caused by the ways a person thinks and acts (behavior), and these ways are learned and then habituated, it takes getting the right information, help, effort, support, and time to make healthy change. To think someone can just snap out of anxiety disorder is, therefore, unrealistic.
We can use this analogy to clarify this point: Many of us are raised in a one-language family. As we grow up, we learn that language. For me (Jim Folk), it was English. Since I wasn’t exposed to a second language and haven’t taken the time to learn another language, English is all I know. So, that’s all I use.
Behaviors are similar. Ninety percent of the ways we behave are directly influenced by those who raised us. Their behaviors; the way they raised us; the way they interacted with us; the ways they coped with adversity, uncertainty, and risk; the ways they showed love, acceptance, and respect; the conclusions we made about all of this; and so much more, help shape the behaviors we currently use. Unless you made deliberate changes to the way you behaved as a child, most likely, the behaviors you are currently using are the very same ones you formed as a child. And many of us have used our ‘auto-pilot’ behaviors for years, which have given them plenty of time to become entrenched.
So, similar to being able to speak only one language, we behave using only the behaviors we learned. Thinking someone could suddenly, and without training, change behaviors is like expecting someone to suddenly start using a language they haven’t learned.
Again, to think someone can just snap out of anxiety disorder is unrealistic. And there are other reasons for this, as well.
2. There is a physiological component that takes time to recover from.
Behaving in an overly apprehensive manner stresses the body. A body that becomes overly stressed (which we call stress-response hyperstimulation) can exhibit symptoms. Once the body becomes overly stressed and symptomatic, it can take a very long time to recover from.
Even if a person were to suddenly stop behaving anxiously, the body still needs sufficient time to recover from all of the changes persistently elevated stress can cause. In the meantime, the body can remain symptomatic.
Many anxious people experience a wide range of persistent and debilitating physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms, including involuntary panic attacks, due to the build up of anxiety-caused stress.
So again, even if a person were to suddenly ‘snap out of anxious behavior,’ the body can still present debilitating symptoms…and for a long time.
And, the more anxious the behavior, the more stressed the body can become. The more stressed the body becomes, the more symptomatic it can become.
In fact, the body can become so overly stressed due to overly apprehensive behavior that the physical consequences can be significant, greatly impacting, and long-lasting. Asking someone to ‘snap out of this physiological state’ is like asking someone to snap out of a broken bone.
Recovery from hyperstimulation takes time…and more time than most people think. For more information about the physiological, psychological, and emotional effects of hyperstimulation and why it can take a long time to recover, Recovery Support members can read the section “Hyperstimulation And Its Effects” in Chapter 14 in the Recovery Support area.
Yet, there’s more.
3. Established fears take time to extinguish.
A great many anxious people become afraid of anxiety disorder, its symptoms, and implications. When fears become established, they can take a long time to extinguish.
Extinguishing fears is a process that most often requires good information, professional help, determined effort, support, and a great deal of time. While some fears can be extinguished relatively quickly, most require a lot of work and time.
Here again, expecting someone to just ‘snap out of anxiety disorder’ is unrealistic. We explain the process of extinguishing fears in Chapter 6 in the Recovery Support area.
There are many more reasons why anxiety disorder sufferers just can’t ‘snap themselves out of anxiety disorder.’ But the above three reasons, even individually, are significant enough.
Anxiety disorder sufferers are anxious for many reasons. Until those reasons are addressed, it’s unrealistic to think a person can just snap out of a struggle with anxiety disorder.
Rather than expecting an immediate change, encourage anxiety disorder sufferers to get the right information, get the right professional help, do the work required, and persevere through to success.
The good news is that we can overcome issues with anxiety. The future can be bright again. We can live a life free of problematic anxiety. But doing so requires getting the right help and doing the right work. Those that do this work, succeed.
Anxiety disorder sufferers aren’t weak minded or inferior in some psychological or emotional way. They simply learned to approach life in an overly apprehensive manner, which has become their ‘normal.’ Encouraging them to seek help to make the necessary changes, while remaining patient and supportive, are some of the most helpful things you can do to help a loved one overcome a struggle with anxiety disorder.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder coach, counselor, or therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our anxiety therapists; common Anxiety Signs and Symptoms; common Anxiety Attack Symptoms; the symptoms of panic attack disorder; anxiety Recovery Support area; information about Anxiety; and our Anxiety 101 section; or click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
"CBT can be recommended as a gold standard in the psychotherapeutic treatment of patients with anxiety disorders." - Otte, Christian. "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Anxiety Disorders: Current State of the Evidence." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Les Laboratoires Servier, Dec. 2011. Web. 14 Sept. 2016.
DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.
Return to our anxiety tips page.
Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated January 1, 2019.