We do all sorts of stuff when we feel scared or anxious — we worry, we overanalyze, we re-play both real and imagined scenarios, and we seek reassurance, whether it’s from others or ourselves. We do all these things because anxiety feels downright crappy and taking some sort of action, even non-productive action, gives us a semblance of control, which feels oh-so-good compared to the unease that anxiety brings.
How come we can’t always see this anxious thinking for what it is, rooted in fear and insecurity, not truth? Well it’s because we are always feeling our thinking. Emotions (especially intense, not so pleasant ones) have a way of making our thoughts appear way more personal, important, and real than they actually are. So we innocently get tricked into spending a lot of time trying to avoid, prevent, and/or run away from those negative thoughts and the uncomfortable emotions that follow — as quickly as possible. One way we do this is through habitual reassurance.
So what can we do about this truth? Remember that feeling uneasy, unsure, scared, and insecure are really uncomfortable emotions, but they are just symptoms; they are as much symptoms of an anxious state of mind as are an increased heart rate, stomach aches, and, my personal favorite, profuse sweating. There’s literally nothing we have to do because all this emotional discomfort is the result of anxiety (a temporary and fleeting state) and nothing more.
Unfortunately, we are not taught to slow down and do nothing when we feel anxious. Our instinct is to do what we know how to do best — take some sort of action, like reassurance, to dampen the discomfort from anxiety. Reassurance feels pretty good when we’re feeling unsure or uneasy, so we get into the game of trying to convince the anxious brain that it’s okay, that we’re okay. Sometimes it works temporarily, but often it gets us caught in no-man’s-land in a battle between the anxious brain and the logical brain. You have to remember — the anxious brain doesn’t play fair; it’s not going to see any logic or reason in that moment, and by engaging it we’re only empowering and perpetuating this anxious habit.
Your anxious brain is a bit like a toddler throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum; if you let them scream it out for a minute they often exhaust themselves and move on, usually laughing and smiling 5 minutes later. But if that toddler is used to getting attention, toys, or sweets during their tantrums, then it becomes a more frequent occurrence. If our brain feels like we’re getting something out of reassurance (even if it’s only two minutes of relief), then it’s going to keep seeking reassurance.
I know when I was struggling with health anxiety and was SO convinced that I had a heart problem, reassurance was my go-to habit. Every time I felt the sensation of skipped heartbeats and palpitations or had the terrifying thought that I was going to drop dead from cardiac arrest, I’d seek reassurance from my doctor (once or twice is a good idea, by the eleventh visit, not so much), from WebMD, and by compulsively checking my pulse and blood pressure.
These actions brought me instant and temporary relief for a time, but eventually I was monitoring my blood pressure every 5 minutes because the relief became more and more short lived. What I didn’t realize was that by constantly seeking reassurance, I was perpetuating this belief that I actually had a heart problem — no wonder anxiety was sticking around.
What happens when we take a step back and do nothing instead of getting caught in the reassurance game? Well, like the toddler, when we don’t engage our anxious brain with reassurances, it tends to simply scream and cry itself out after a few minutes and moves onto happier activities. Sure, it’s uncomfortable in the moment, but when you slow down, take a step back and let the wave of anxiety wash over you, I think you’ll be surprised by how quickly the anxiety dissipates.
Each time we make room for anxiety to wash over us instead of playing the reassurance game, our brain starts to see what anxiety really is, not a danger, but an uncomfortable, temporary and fleeting emotion.
Stressed guy photo available from Shutterstock