How Your Anxiety Lies to You

Your brain tells you that worrying is fine because it’s better to be safe than sorry, but ruminations aren’t a victimless crime. While obsessing over your health or that stupid thing you said last year to that person you’ll never see again, you’re neglecting the aspects of your life that need attention, likely worrying about the wrong things.

Anxiety, or rather emotional reasoning, is a means of forming intuitive judgments about what’s most important in the present in order to fix or avoid problems. You think to yourself, “I’m anxious so what I’m anxious about must be dangerous.” If you have illness anxiety, you hyper-focus on pain, believing it to portend an encroaching disease. If you have social anxiety, you may spend your time worrying about whether others noticed your bad breadth or tendency to stutter. Emotional reasoning is the cognitive distortion by which you turn to your emotional states to inform you about reality. In some instances, especially those which afford you little time to reason, you truly are in danger. In most, however, you are not. Thus, your anxiety lies to you.

Many of my clients ask me, “Well, what does worrying actually cost me? Isn’t it a net-positive because even though I worry, I protect myself more often than I would otherwise?” And, it’s true; they do. But, at what cost? Most of those individuals struggle with loneliness and self-imposed isolation because, again, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Why risk rejection when you can comfort yourself at home? Why not play it safe when playing it safe doesn’t hurt? In that mindset, anxiety’s captive becomes a mental host, having its propaganda run on an endless loop. And with black and white thinking (wherein something is either all-good or all-bad), her conviction is further reinforced.

One of my clients asked, “Why do you think my lifestyle isn’t sustainable?” And, I told him that our anxiety is meant to protect us in the short-term, while contributing almost nothing to long-term well-being; it’s a snap reaction cultivated for you to see another day. Now, consider all that you miss. My client was certain he wouldn’t develop symptoms of depression, yet somehow found himself in my virtual office. While his anxiety was persuading him of his safety, his loneliness was slowly robbing him of air. Day by day, as he preoccupied himself with maintaining the perfect mask for his social character, he wondered why he was so unhappy.

I’ve met countless individuals who’ve hid in shame due to some perceived flaw. Those struggling with an illness labeled Body Dysmorphic Disorder believe that they’ll be rejected for their physical flaws. Some think they’re too fat; others think they’re too short. Some believe they’re ugly; and others believe they’re dumb. And as they work to perfect and chisel away their flaws, society shuns them anyway. But not for the anticipated reasons.

A friend of mine who believed that he was ugly was frequently rejected for being cheap. His anxious mind convinced him that he needed to exercise more and buy nicer clothes. Yet, the women he dated already found him to be highly attractive but, also, much too selfish to relate to. He worried about that which didn’t matter, rather than the interpersonal effects of his decisions.

And, a client of mine allowed himself to remain in an unfulfilling marriage for almost a decade partially because he spent most of his time ruminating about his health. Victimless crime? Worrying never hurt anyone? Consider how many people deflect blame, shame others, and displace their anger onto them. How many of them can’t see their own poor judgments as the sledgehammers of their barren lives? How many are, on the one hand, people-pleasers who are horrified by being slightly rude and, on the other, refuse to take responsibility when called out for hurting someone’s feelings? (You know, those individuals who, it seems, merely live to deflect blame.)

In reality, people, often, won’t reject you for the flaws you spend most of your time hiding. Rather, they’ll reject you for avoiding them or treating them like shit, which your anxious mind fails to even consider.

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