Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement strongly sustains anxiety. In the jargon of psychology, the “negative” part means that an aversive stimulus is removed. The “reinforcement” part means that the frequency of behavior increases as a result. When anxiety is avoided, your discomfort goes down. Avoidance is reinforced, because—in the short term at least—it seems to work. So avoidance becomes your go-to strategy for managing anxiety. This is just commonsense: Put maximum distance between you and anxiety situation that seems to cause the symptoms.

Unfortunately, avoidance is a trap. What happens next time you encounter the same situation? Your anxiety is worse, because you never stuck around long enough to realize that the feared situation is actually safe. With anxiety worse, you’re even more motivated to escape. If you give in, your discomfort subsides again, your avoidance behavior is reinforced again, and your anxiety intensifies, a vicious circle.

Commonsense: Anxiety Management Strategies

Unfortunately, there are many ways to practice anxiety management. You have probably used most of them already. Massage helps the physical symptoms, like muscle soreness and tightness. Medications temporarily relieve the intensity of the symptoms. A good movie provides distraction and reduces some of the cognitive symptoms, like worry. Taking time away from work relieves chronic stress. Putting unwanted thoughts out of your mind reduces tightness in your throat and a pounding heart. We’ve all been there, and these strategies work in moderation. Who hasn’t rewarded themselves with an ice cream cone after a particularly stressful day at work? Who hasn’t taken the day off work when their stress became too intense? Even psychotherapy is an anxiety management strategy: When people come in for therapy, their agenda is to escape their anxiety. They want the therapist to tell them how.

Used chronically, however, anxiety management strategies begin to take you out of your life. You distract yourself because your anxiety is too intense to think about. You miss work because of fear of having a panic attack. A friend calls and asks you to go out. You want to, but if the anxiety flares, you know you’ll regret it. Or maybe you imagine finding yourself in a place where escape might be difficult. So you decide to seek safety and stay home. You think about all the planning that needs to go into your daughter’s birthday party, and then you think about the ways it could go wrong. So you procrastinate.

Experiential Avoidance

The common denominator of all anxiety management is that you absolutely must not feel anxious. That would be too dangerous. Psychologists have a special term for this, it’s called “experiential avoidance,” a fancy way of saying “absolutely don’t go there.”

All anxiety management strategies are designed to push anxiety symptoms out of your awareness. When you avoid and resist anxiety, your symptoms temporarily subside, and the anxiety becomes more tolerable. You might not be completely free of it, but you’re at least you’re headed in the right direction, or so it seems. And because avoidance and resistance work some of the time, you do what any reasonable person would do: You double down on the avoidance and resistance. Because it seems to work, you do more of it. What most people don’t realize is that the more you manage, resist, struggle against, and avoid anxiety, the stronger it gets, and the more work it takes to temporarily relieve the symptoms. In this sense, negative reinforcement works almost like addiction. Just like you need more of a drug to feel high, over time you need more and more avoidance in order to feel secure from anxiety.

You may have heard the old saying, “That which you resists, persists.” When you build a wall in your own mind, your resistance becomes the power source for that which you absolutely must not experience.

Lost Courage and Demoralization

You’re probably thinking that people don’t always avoid their anxiety. Instead, they have moments of courage where they confront anxiety and power through the symptoms. Maybe they’re angry or disappointed with themselves for giving in to the symptoms. Maybe they hate giving up their life goals and feeling stagnated. So instead of automatically giving up, they stubbornly resist anxiety and try to open up their lives again. We call this “climbing anxiety mountain,” because it involves evoking and tolerating the symptoms.

Unfortunately, when the going gets tough, most people eventually lose their nerve and retreat. You crawl back into your cocoon with weakened self-confidence, your strength and perseverance punished by the symptoms. Anxiety is a powerful and uncontrollable Godzilla monster that lives in your head. Each time you try and give up, you get a hit of relief—negative reinforcement—and the anxiety mountain grows a little higher.

Janet experienced anxiety while driving, so she asked her boyfriend to drive instead. This worked well for a while, until she realized that he wouldn’t always be available to drive her. One day she made up her mind to beat the symptoms. As she backed the car out of the garage, her heart began pounding. She sat in the driveway listening to her heart for about a minute. She knew the symptoms were completely irrational, but the terror was too much. Her hands trembling, she slowly pulled the car back inside, then ran into her bedroom and broke down. She tried again a few days later, but this time, her heart began pounding before she could even opened the car door. The mountain had grown higher.

Suppressing and Distracting

Whereas leaving situations that cause anxiety may be considered external avoidance, suppression and distraction involve internal avoidance.

Suppression sounds good. At least it’s being active and trying to take control of one’s thoughts and not passively submitting to the anxiety, right? “Maybe I can deal with anxiety by not thinking about it.” Suppression is considered a classic defense mechanism. You consciously opt to change the subject. You put it out of your mind and choose to think about something else.

Unfortunately, suppression doesn’t work. You can demonstrate this easily. At the end of this paragraph, close your eyes and do not think of a white elephant for exactly one minute. No matter what you do, absolutely do not think of a white elephant. If you do, it will be bad. The stakes are high, and there will be consequences. Very very bad consequences. Go!

Most people think of a white elephant within seconds. That’s because suppression requires that we attend to the very thing we are trying to suppress in order to suppress it, a contradiction. “I am going to suppress my awareness of my trembling right now.” Then you check yourself to see if you’re really aware of the trembling. Of course you’re aware of the trembling, you just checked your body to see if you’re trembling.

Distraction works by introducing stimulation that’s entertaining or absorbing enough to crowd out anxiety. Distraction works temporarily, but anxious thoughts tend to intrude, requiring more suppression and distraction. Imagine you are watching your favorite movie. The villain appears and what happens? Your throat tightens up. You immediately suppress your awareness of your throat and the movie continues. Then there’s a chase scene, and your throat tightens up. You suppress the terror associated with this awareness, and the vicious circle continues.

Suppression and distraction are both attempts to manipulate your awareness. They don’t address your anxiety, just your awareness of your anxiety. In that sense, they provide only symptomatic relief, if they provide any relief at all.
Since anxiety management strategies are likely to saturate your life, it’s important that you discover them. All of them. These management strategies represent time spent coping rather than time spent living. As such, they represent a measure of how much your life has shrunken. But there is good news: Each anxiety management technique conceals an opportunity to expand your life again. Rather than manage or avoid, you can make better choices. Your anxiety management temptations—if you learn to recognize them—are actually a cause for optimism. They represent your discovery of a pathway toward a better, more meaningful, and satisfying life.