When we try to control anxiety, we end up making it worse because we teach our brain to fear itself.
My favorite part about being at the airport is getting to watch the planes take off.
That something so clunky-looking as a commercial airplane manages to get off the ground—much less stay up in the air for more than a few minutes—is breathtaking.
Watching those huge chunks of metal take off and land makes me feel like a little kid—that sense of awe and excitement… and reassurance.
It’s reassuring to know there are people out there who are so smart that they figured out a way to get a giant hunk of metal to fly thousands of miles through the air and at hundreds of miles per hour…. And safely carry hundreds of people along for the ride.
The airport reminds me what amazing problem solvers we human beings can be.
Of course, I don’t spend that much time in airports—maybe a handful of times per year.
Where I do spend a lot of time is my office working as a psychologist and therapist. And this often gives a slightly less rosy picture of our capacity for problem-solving…
To a Problem Solver, Everything Looks Like a Problem
As a society, there aren’t many things we value more than the ability to effectively solve problems.
So much so that many of us spend the first 20 to 30 years of our lives in school, essentially learning to be more effective problem solvers. And as we improve along the way, we get rewarded for all this problem solving—parental praise for a good report card, admission to a prestigious university, a high-paying job.
As a result, this capacity to problem solve—to apply our intellectual and analytical powers to a difficult challenge—is so deeply baked into our very way of being that it’s hard to even notice how much we do it.
Problem solving is our default. It’s the lens through which we increasingly view the world and everything in it.
In many ways this is useful considering how many aspects of our lives benefit from effective problem solving. After all, we don’t build bridges, cure smallpox, or get to the moon without huge expenditures of collective problem solving.
But even though many things in life get worked out or improved with problem solving, there’s a small class of things that are not amenable to analytical problem solving. In fact, they’re often made worse by it.
Take difficulty falling asleep, a common problem increasing numbers of people struggle with.
When you’re lying in bed at night, sleepless, the harder you try to solve the problem of not sleeping, the more you activate your mind and arouse your body. But being mentally stimulated and physically aroused are the exact opposite conditions necessary for sleep.
This is the Sleep Effort Paradox: The harder you try to sleep the less likely you are to fall sleep.
While a useful tool, there’s obviously a danger in applying problem solving too widely or automatically.
With sleep the effort to control our sleep backfires because it produces arousal which directly inhibits sleep. A similar process happens when we try to control anxiety.
How Too Much Problem Solving Leads to Anxiety
One of the most common ways we mis-apply our problem-solving abilities is by trying to control our emotions.
Because many emotions feel bad, we make the mistake of assuming they are bad, and therefore a problem to be solved. I see clients every day in my work as a therapist who ask me to teach them how to “control anxiety” or “manage my fear.”
This is understandable for all the reasons we talked about above: We’re trained to be problem solvers from birth. And something as painful as major anxiety, for example, seems like the perfect candidate for some big time problem solving.
But when it comes to problem solving anxiety, the cure is worse than the condition.
As I’ve written about in Your Emotional Brain: A User’s Guide, when we treat our fear like a problem (i.e. trying to fix it, control it, manage it, solve it, etc.), we train our brains to perceive our own fear as a genuine problem.
This means the next time we feel fear, our brain is going to remember and produce an even stronger fear response. And in response, we will try even harder to control and solve our ever-increasing levels of fear.
See where this is going?
Any attempt to problem solve, control, or otherwise “manage” our fear only makes it worse in the long run because it signals to our brain that its own fear response is dangerous.
Anxiety is what happens when the brain starts to fear itself.
You Can’t Control Your Way Out of Anxiety
Unfortunately, we get ourselves into chronic anxiety precisely because we’re such good problem solvers.
We’re so good at controlling and managing our external environment that we naturally start trying to control our internal environment. But this backfires because of our brain’s unique ability observe itself and learn.
The only way out is to learn to become more mentally flexible and stop mis-applying problem solving and control to our own emotions like fear and anxiety.
There are two steps to doing this:
- Realize that problem solving is great for true problems but can be detrimental to things that look and feel like problems but aren’t. Trying to problem solve your anxiety makes as little sense as trying to problem solve going to the dentist or studying for an exam. Because while uncomfortable, these things are not actually problems. In fact, they’re good things that just happen to feel bad.
- Learn to simply observe your anxiety without doing anything about it. Watch it, notice it, be curious about it, but don’t try to do anything to it. You may find that it’s not as dangerous as you’ve led yourself (and your brain) to believe. This is difficult, of course, and takes practice. But if you want to re-train your brain to not be afraid of fear itself, you have to stop treating fear like a problem—trying to control, fix, and solve it.
Want to Become a More Flexible Thinker (and Reduce Your Anxiety Along the Way)?
Mindfulness is the best way to cultivate cognitive flexibility, emotional balance, and ultimately, much lower levels of anxiety.
Here are a few good places to start:
- No Seriously, What is Mindfulness? A quick overview to the often-confusing question of what mindfulness actually is.
- How to Start a Mindfulness Practice. A friendly and practical guide for anyone who wants to get started with a formal mindfulness practice. Perfect for complete beginners.
- Ordinary Mindfulness: 10 Simple Ways to Be More Mindful in Everyday Life. The real trick to realizing the benefits of mindfulness is to start incorporating it into all aspects of our lives.
Nick Wignall is a clinical psychologist and writer interested in practical psychology for meaningful personal growth. You can find more of his writing at NickWignall.com.
Image courtesy of Francisco Gonzalez.