If you have a big worry on your mind, you probably feel compelled to do something to try to resolve it as soon as possible. In my experience specializing in treating anxiety disorders, there are three main things people tend to gravitate towards when they are worried about something: analyzing it in their own head, talking to someone else to get their opinion/reassurance, and researching it online. All of these things can sometimes make us feel better in the short-term but really perpetuate the anxiety and cause more suffering in the long term. In this article, I’m going to focus on one of these behaviors: seeking opinions and reassurance from loved ones.
The logic behind this behavior is simple and understandable: “I’m worried that something bad is going to happen and I’m not sure what to do. Because I’m unsure, I should see what my wife/husband/partner/mom/dad/friends/whoever think about it. Then I’ll have more information and opinions, and I’ll know what to think and what to do about this.”
Let’s say you’re worried about whether you’ll have enough money to pay the bills this year. You feel uncertain about it, so you go talk to your partner to get their opinion. You run it by them and they probably do what most people do when a loved one is worried about something: they offer reassurance. They go over all the logical reasons why you probably will have enough money to pay the bills and why you don’t need to worry about it.
Now that they’ve given you this reassurance, you feel better in that moment. It feels good to get that reassurance, it calms the anxiety. The problem is that this is only temporary. Whether it’s 5 seconds later, 5 minutes later, or 5 hours later, your brain will come back and say, “Well sure, your partner thinks you’ll have enough money, but… how do you KNOW?” And then the anxiety comes back and the worry cycle starts all over again.
Your brain is not satisfied unless you achieve certainty that the thing you’re worried about won’t happen. Unfortunately, because most worries are about predicting what is going to happen in the future, it’s impossible to achieve certainty about them.
So now that the uncertainty and anxiety are back, you think about what you should do now. You are understandably anxious and also frustrated. Because the reassurance from your partner felt good when you asked for it and got it earlier, you are likely to seek that out again. So now you go back to your partner and ask them what they think again about the same thing. Because it is rewarding in the short-term in that moment to you to get the reassurance and also rewarding to them to give you the reassurance (because it temporarily satisfies you and gets you to stop asking them about it), they give you the reassurance again. This again feels good temporarily, but then once again your brain comes back with “But how do you KNOW?” And the cycle continues.
For many people with anxiety, this leads them to repeatedly keep asking loved ones for reassurance about the same things over and over. This often leads to anger and frustration from the loved ones who have to keep giving the reassurance. It also makes the anxious person feel guilty because they know their loved ones don’t want to hear about the worries anymore, but they’re also in pain and understandably want relief. It’s hard to stop seeking something that gives you relief.
Most importantly, seeking reassurance is actually exactly what’s keeping the anxiety going in the long run. Short-term avoidance of anxiety leads to long-term maintenance of anxiety.
For anxiety sufferers, reassurance is a drug. An addictive drug. And if you want to break a drug addiction… you must stop taking the drug.
That’s why one of my top recommendations to chronic worriers is to stop talking about the things you worry about. You must forgo getting the short-term relief of the reassurance in order to get better. Instead, you can learn to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. In fact, if you allow uncertainty in the short-term, that is how your brain gets retrained that uncertainty is not actually dangerous and that’s how anxiety about uncertainty gets better and stays better in the long run.
The cost is that you must go through “withdrawal” from the drug of reassurance and let yourself be uncomfortable in the short-term. I know it’s really hard, but you can do it. Trust me, I have seen many, many anxious people summon the strength to do this and recover from anxiety.
When I first present this to clients, many are understandably reluctant to give up that short-term relief. But when I present it to their family members, they love it! That speaks to the other benefit of the strategy aside from just helping the anxiety: it leads to better, more peaceful relationships.
At a base level, if you want to feel less anxious, you must act less anxious. Emotions follow from behaviors: the more you act anxious, the more anxious you will be. The more you act inconsistently with anxiety, the less anxious you will be. So if you want your anxiety and worry to get better, use this tried-and-true strategy: stop talking about your worries. You and the people around you will be better off for it.