If you have anxiety, you may believe that talking to others about your worries is helpful. When you’re anxious, you may talk more, which is common. And you’ve likely noticed that many times, you walk away from the conversation feeling reassured and relieved.
What I’m wondering is whether, at other times, talking about the problem has actually made you feel worse? Or whether your anxiety has actually gotten worse over time?
If so, why is this? What exactly is the role of conversation in helping us with anxiety?
Many people with anxiety can identify with the the habit of talking more when they feel anxious. We’ve all heard that it’s helpful to talk about our problems, and so we figure that that is the healthy thing to do. And as a therapist who works with all sorts of issues, I’m certainly not going to tell you never to talk about your problems…I help people all the time with anxiety by talking with them about it!
Yet it’s important to understand what kind of conversation is helpful and what kind is not. A lot of the time, when we’re feeling anxious, we’re hoping that the conversation will make the anxiety go away…and it’s our very attempt to get rid of it as quickly as possible that fuels having more of it over time.
If you don’t have an anxiety disorder—or even if you do and the issue at hand is not particularly bothersome to you—it’s possible that talking about it will be helpful. Great! You’re likely getting some reassurance or insight that sticks. You don’t keep worrying about things or you figure out a solution. Conversely, if you struggle greatly with anxiety and the issue is a big one for you, you may find that the relief you feel doesn’t last, that you have to have the same conversation over and over, and that your anxiety has actually stayed the same or is getting worse.
Why is this? Because for you and thousands of others struggling with anxiety, conversation has become your attempt to get certainty about something that can never be certain, such as whether harm will come to your children, you’ll make a bad impression on someone, or you will develop health problems. After all, there’s no way to prove that a bad thing won’t happen. And yet we try!
Our friends and family likely think they’re talking with you about an important “issue,” when what they—and you—are really dealing with is anxiety. And they likely don’t know how to best help you with that. They, too, want you to feel better, and so they likely do the one thing that we know will really drive anxiety up over time, and that is to offer you reassurance about the problem.
Sometimes reassurance sticks, in which case, fine. But when it doesn’t, it tends to feed upon itself: We need more and more of it over time.
Important point no. 1: Reassurance is a short-term solution, not a long-term one.
Your family and friends love and care about you, and with best intentions, try to help you in ways that aren’t helpful: by reassuring you, analyzing the issue, and helping you “figure things out” or “problem solve,” but in reality, they, like you, are sucked into the content at hand, not realizing the real problem is anxiety.
Important point no. 2: Examining the content of your worries won’t help.
Even therapists can fall into the habit of exploring “issues” with you that seem interesting and important…marital issues, our fears about the future, concerns about the kids. And yet, anxiety always has its content. It’s essential to learn how to deal with the real issue at hand—anxiety—and not get sucked into the content of the scary thoughts themselves. The therapist might try to help you with these issues by exploring them in detail, examining your reactions to things, and helping you figure out solutions. While these things can be helpful for a less-anxious person dealing with a real-world problem (ie, not anxiety), they are unhelpful for anxiety and may actually make things worse.
So what actually helps anxiety? What is it that friends and family and even many therapists may not know about how to respond, when an anxious person brings up an “issue” that seems interesting and important?
It’s that analyzing the content of the thoughts—the details of marriage, the kids, the money—won’t be helpful; learning to change your response to your anxious thoughts… will! What an anxious person needs most is to learn to respond differently to their discomfort of anxiety, both the physical sensations and their worries, and learn coping strategies to calm the body down and learn to respond to anxious thoughts differently.
Some ideas to consider:
Maybe it’s not true that talking about your worries is always the best thing.
It’s possible your friends and family are not giving you what you actually need.
You might need a new set of skills to cope better with your anxiety.
If you’d like to learn more about managing your anxiety better by tolerating uncertainty, we’re happy to talk to you about that!