Beliefs: What they are and how they relate to anxiety disorder.
In the article, “System Of Beliefs,” we wrote about how the conclusions we make about life form our System of Beliefs (SOB), and that these conclusions are based on our opinions.
Opinion can be defined as: a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.
While our opinions can be based on facts (they don’t necessarily need to be), our SOB is made up of our opinions, nevertheless.
We also said that our SOB is the primary driver of our behaviors. For more information, read our System Of Beliefs article if you haven’t already.
Our behaviors stem from a process that can be illustrated as:
We think about our life experience as we interact with the world (External Influences). The thoughts we think are heavily influenced by our SOB. Based on the interaction between our thought-life and our SOB, we arrive at conclusions. These conclusions drive our decisions, which then drive our actions.
Behavior is the entire process of thinking and acting.
This process takes place every time we perform an action…whether we are aware of it or not.
Repeating this behavioral process over and over again about a particular subject or topic can make this process so automatic and fast, that it can seem instinctual. Habituation occurs when we perform the same processes over and over again until the processes become automatic.
Habituation is defined as: an automatic reaction to a specific situation.
“Practice makes perfect” comes to mind regarding habituation. The more often we repeat something, the more automatic it becomes.
So, behaviors can become so automatic that they feel instinctual, second nature, and seemingly innate. Nevertheless, however, our behaviors do involve a process of thinking, decision-making, and resulting action.
If you want to change a behavior, you’ll need to address it at the thinking level…which is where apprehensive behavior originates. You do that by understanding your SOB, what it contains, why you originally made those conclusions, what conclusions are unhealthy (which lead to apprehensive behavior) and making healthy behavioral change. You can start that process by understanding beliefs, what they are, where they came from, and assessing them to see if they are unhealthy and why. That’s next.
What are beliefs?
Belief can be defined as: something one accepts as true or real, also untrue and unreal.
For example, most of us believe that the sun in the sky is real. We believe that because we see it everyday (when it’s not cloudy) and science has shown that it is real. Therefore, we believe the sun is real.
Based on this conclusion, our SOB may be populated with:
Beliefs: it’s "True" that the sun is real.
Values: the sun allows us to live on earth, so the sun is "Good."
Preferences: many of us ‘Like’ the sun because of these conclusions, and additionally, because the sun feels warm. There are most likely a number of other reasons many people "Like" the sun.
In this case, our SOB contains these statements: that the reality of the sun is “True,” we believe the sun is “Good,” and we “Like” it. Once these statements have been internalized (learned and accepted) into our SOB, if someone asked us about the sun, we’d most likely answer:
1. We believe the sun is real.
2. We believe the sun is good for our planet.
3. We like the sun.
As we mentioned in the System Of Beliefs article, once we’ve internalized our conclusions, they are difficult to change, especially the Values and Beliefs categories. Preferences, not so much.
What if we wanted to arrive at a different opinion about the sun, what would we need to do?
To change behavior (the way we respond when someone asks us about the sun), we would need to change our SOB.
For example, we’d have to start with the Belief statement. If someone convinced you that the sun wasn’t real…and you believed him, you might change your “the sun is real” conclusion to the “sun is NOT real” conclusion. This would change your Belief statement in your SOB to: the sun is NOT real.
If someone also convinced you the sun is harmful, and therefore, not “Good,” this would also change your Values statement to: the sun is BAD.
And if you believe the sun is bad, your preference could change to: I “Dislike” the sun.
These different opinions would change your SOB accordingly. Then, when someone asked you about the sun, you’d most likely respond differently to what you did originally with, “There is no sun. If there was a sun, it would be bad, and therefore, I dislike it.”
A change in your SOB causes a change in behavior.
The reality is that many of us have beliefs that we firmly believe to be true, when in fact, they are actually false. These are the types of beliefs that often cause issues with anxiety – beliefs that we first believed were true, when in fact, they are false. Consequently, they fuel an overly apprehensive approach to life.
So how does this all apply to anxiety?
Apprehensive behavior is caused by unhealthy aspects of your SOB. If you want to eliminate apprehensive behavior, you’ll need to identify those unhealthy parts of your SOB and change them so that your resulting behavior is healthy rather than apprehensive. Overcoming anxiety disorder is all about making this type of healthy behavioral change – at the cognitive level since that is where our behaviors start.
Here’s an example:
Many people who struggle with anxiety disorder do so because they firmly believe they are inferior to others and/or that they are flawed in some way. This is unhealthy self-esteem. Unhealthy self-esteem is heavily influenced by how their SOB is constructed. Here’s why:
Many people who struggle with anxiety disorder were raised in environments where there was a form of physical, psychological, emotional, and/or spiritual abuse. For example, I (Jim Folk) grew up in a home where my father was overly critical, had unrealistic expectations, and was a strict disciplinarian. As a result, it seemed like everything I did wasn’t good enough for him. Moreover, when I did something he thought I shouldn’t have, he would yell, huff and puff, stomp around, and threaten violence. Sometimes he was physically abusive (spanking, slapping, punching, etc.).
I understand he learned his parenting style from his parents and thought he was doing what was best for me, but I didn’t perceive it that way at the time. Since children take things personally, I concluded that there was something wrong with ME because I was always making him mad. Year after year of this type of treatment as I was growing up resulted in my SOB having some unhealthy beliefs, such as:
- It’s true that there’s something wrong with me.
- It’s true that it’s my fault for making others upset.
- It’s true that children should be seen and not heard.
- It’s true that it’s wrong to express my opinion.
- It’s true that I have to be very concerned about what others think of me.
- It’s true that I shouldn’t make anyone upset.
- It’s true that I’m never going to be good enough.
- It’s true that if someone is upset, I’ve done something wrong.
- It’s true that making mistakes is wrong.
- It’s true that no matter how hard I try, I'll never be acceptable to others.
- It’s true that if I make a mistake that means I’m stupid and should have known better.
And so on.
Having these types of beliefs in my SOB, naturally they will heavily influence how I behave. For example, apprehensive behaviors that stem from beliefs like these include:
- Feeling inferior to others and worrying whether others will find out about my inferiority.
- Worrying that I might upset someone with something I might say or do.
- Worrying that I'll be taken advantage of because it’s wrong to stand up for yourself.
- Worrying about someone being upset, and then having his upsetness directed toward me and feeling like there is nothing I can do about it.
- Worrying about not being able to calm someone down who is upset.
- Worrying about being subjected to physical violence because I might have done or said something wrong.
- Worrying about what may happen in an important circumstance.
- Being fearful that my opinion may be viewed as wrong by others.
- Worrying about being made to look foolish and showing my inferiority.
- Worrying about making a mistake.
- Worrying about going into important social settings, and then looking foolish for something I might say or do.
- Worrying about making a mistake and being rejected and ridiculed by others because I should have known better.
And a multitude of other apprehensive behaviors.
Being so concerned day after day, can take a toll on the mind, emotions, and body. It’s no wonder a person can end up dealing with anxiety disorder. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of my SOB was populated with unhealthy beliefs, values, and preferences, as are many of those who struggle with anxiety issues.
The circumstances I experienced early in life influenced my conclusions about life and how my SOB was constructed. Once my Values, Beliefs, and Preferences were constructed, they drove my apprehensiveness.
This is a common scenario: the SOB we construct during our formative years, and the behaviors that stem from it, are most often the very ones we use as adults. Because we don’t know that our SOB and behaviors are unhealthy, we don’t think there is anything wrong with them…until we experience symptoms, unhealthy relationships, and life impairment. My struggle with anxiety disorder drove me to seek help.
Once I started to get help for my anxiety, I realized that many of my previously held Values, Beliefs, and Preferences were unhealthy. So, I had to go back and change them in order to overcome my issues with anxiety. To do that, I had to identify the many unhealthy conclusions in my SOB that motivated apprehensive behavior, find out what healthy replacements were and why, and then, replace my unhealthy conclusions with healthy ones. Once that was done, my behaviors became healthy rather than apprehensive.
This is the work that needs to be done if one wants to overcome anxiety issues…for good. Sure, there are lots of ways to reduce the stress and its symptoms that come from overly apprehensive behavior. But just managing stress and its symptoms isn’t what I consider real recovery. This is just symptom management.
Lasting recovery involves dealing with anxiety’s core issues once and for all so that our resulting behaviors are healthy rather than apprehensive. Using healthy behavior overtime becomes automatic. So after a while, we aren’t even thinking about having to make healthy behavioral change. Through practice, repetition, and reinforcement our healthy behaviors become automatic, and seemingly instinctual and the unhealthy behaviors are discarded.
One of the challenges of making healthy overall change is that it’s difficult to do on our own. If we could, we wouldn’t struggle with anxiety issues in the first place. That’s because the vast majority of our SOB seems normal to us, and consequently, the vast majority of our behaviors FEEL normal and NOT unhealthy.
It generally takes an experienced anxiety disorder therapist to, first, help you identify the unhealthy behaviors. Second, help you identify the unhealthy components of your SOB that are influencing your overly apprehensive behavior. Third, help you understand where your unhealthy SOB and behaviors originated from and why. Fourth, help you learn what ‘healthy’ is. Fifth, to support you through making healthy change. And sixth, to give you on going guidance, support, and encouragement as you apply those changes to your relationships and life.
Self-help materials, while helpful and can be an important part of the recovery process, generally aren’t sufficient to help people make meaningful and lasting change. Moreover, applying healthy change in existing relationships and circumstances most often requires on going support, as many in these relationships and circumstance don’t want us to change and will work to resist it. This is why working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is so valuable and why it is the most effective way to overcome anxiety issues.
This is why we recommend therapy…it is the most effective way to overcome problematic anxiety.
- Our conclusions about life shape our SOB.
- These conclusions are opinions.
- Even though we believe our opinions to be true and healthy, the statements that populate our SOB aren’t necessarily true or healthy.
- Our SOB heavily influences our thoughts, conclusions, decisions, and actions (behavior).
- If we want to make healthy behavioral change, we need to identify and successfully address the unhealthy components of our SOB.
- Doing so most often requires the help of a professional.
Professional therapy is often the only way to overcome issues with problematic anxiety, especially anxiety in the moderate and above ranges. You can read more about this in the next article, “Why Therapy For Anxiety Works.”
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder 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.
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