Yes, you read that right: This article tells you what not to do about anxiety. As you will learn, counterintuitively, when it comes to anxiety, trying to fight it will actually make it worse.
The brain’s allergic reaction
On a physiological level, anxiety is like an allergic reaction. When you have an allergic reaction, your body perceives a harmless substance as a dangerous threat and deploys all of its defenses to fight the threat. In the same way, with anxiety (and its most extreme form, a panic attack), your mind misinterprets innocuous cues and deploys its survival mechanisms. A panic attack is your brain going into fight or flight, or, simply put, an adrenaline dump. Your heart races, you have tunnel vision and you may have trouble breathing. In a stressful situation, these symptoms are congruent with (that is, they match) the expectations that you have for that situation. Therefore, you don’t think about it twice. However, let’s say that instead, you’re sitting on your couch watching TV. Suddenly you experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath and tightness in your chest. Not only is the experience itself so terrifying that many people think they are having a heart attack or otherwise dying, but the idea that they had a panic attack “out of nowhere” can be just as scary. For many officers, their initial instinct is to try to will the anxiety away, and this is often the first step toward inadvertently making the problem worse.
Anxiety is like an allergic reaction. Your mind misinterprets innocuous cues and deploys its survival mechanisms.
Your mind has a mind of its own
Anxiety is probably the most common presenting problem for the officers who come to see me. I think a big part of this has to do with how much police officers learn to value control. In having to stay calm in stressful situations, officers are practicing self-control; in planning tactics, officers try to mitigate and control for danger. The more you can control a situation, ultimately, the safer you will be on the job. Thus, it is no surprise that officers also want to apply control to their emotional states. It is a terrifying realization to many that, in fact, you can’t always control your mind. The more you try to fight with yourself to say, “Stop having anxiety,” “Don’t have anxiety” or “I shouldn’t have anxiety,” the bigger it will become. If you have been having anxiety at home and you tell yourself, “This cannot happen at work,” you are guaranteeing that the anxiety will now follow you to work. Why? It all has to do with a pink elephant.
Don’t think about the pink elephant
Are you thinking about the pink elephant? This is because when you tell yourself not to think about something, you can’t help but think about it. If you’re going on a diet and you tell yourself, “Don’t think about chocolate cake,” guess what you’ll be craving? (If you’re facing this particular challenge, try to focus on what you can eat, not what you shouldn’t eat.) The same thing happens with anxiety: When you tell yourself not to have it, you most certainly will. Thus, to many of my clients’ disdain, you cannot make your anxiety go away by trying to control it or force it away. Unfortunately, what this also means is that anti-anxiety medication is only a short-term solution. In fact, overreliance on anti-anxiety medication can make the problem worse, because you are not addressing the root of the problem. If you are prescribed anti-anxiety medication, I recommend that you pair it with psychotherapy in order to truly address the issue.
OK, doc, I’m confused … What do I do about my anxiety?
As a kid, did you ever play with a Chinese finger trap? This puzzle toy traps the unsuspecting victim’s fingers (painlessly) in a flexing bamboo cylinder. The most common reaction is to try to pull your fingers apart as hard as you can. But, as anyone who has played with this toy knows, the more you fight, the more you get stuck. The solution, of course, is to bring your fingers together. In the same way, the more you fight anxiety, the more you get stuck. Thus, anxiety treatments focus on helping you stay still with your emotions, rather than trying to run from them. In addition to a having a general stress management routine in place, one of the most effective tools you can learn to reduce anxiety is the practice of mindfulness. Specifically, the concept of mindfulness can be broken down into four components: observing or paying attention to the present moment, describing the emotion, acting with purposeful awareness and accepting without judgment. When applied to anxiety, these are highly effective interventions, and even more so when paired with someone who can knowledgably guide you and help you along the way. No matter what you are struggling with, remember that help is available if you seek it.