In this post I will describe what I believe is the secret to real, durable, long-term change.  Also I will show why I believe anxiety is both an indicator of change and the most profound limiter of transformation. 

Anxiety, like love, presents in many ways, not all of which can be easily recognized.  But while love may get us to expand our lives without regard to consequences, anxiety tries to constrict our lives specifically to avoid consequences. Because our brain is neurologically designed to find connections and because it is so able to create rationalizations, anxiety often moves from its initial vector (point of entry) and becomes generalized to many areas of our life.  In doing so, our brain forgets about the source of the feeling, anxiety, and starts to find order and prediction where it does not really exist.  The most dangerous part of anxiety is it's ability to convince you that the fear is real, to persuade you that the anxiety doesn't exist.  Charles Baudeleire attributed this trait to the "Devil," but I believe for those who fight against anxiety, the Devil would be a welcome change. 

La plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas

(“The devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.”)
— Charles Baudelaire

To understand how, we need to look into the goals of anxiety. The constriction of thought and the inability to markedly affect anxiety by thinking your way out of it are both products of its location of action, the limbic system.  The conscious, active thinking you are doing right now in reading this sentence and thinking about what the words mean is being done by your cognitive system. The limbic system is involved in emotional regulation, basic needs, automatic responses and similar, unconscious activities.  You don't want to have to think about why it's important to pull your hand off a hot stove, you want it to happen as fast as possible. But this also means that emotions originating in the limbic system will tend to overpower thought. An indication of why is seen in the larger number of neural connections going from the limbic system to the cognitive system than from the cognitive to the limbic. Read this Psychology Today article for more info.

So, once anxiety sets up shop in the limbic system, it starts to control your thoughts and ability to function by having a much closer connection to your emotions and reactions than your thinking brain does. So you may start to see the world in a constricted, problem-flooded manner.  

Your brain on Anxiety sees a limited amount of the world

Your brain on Anxiety sees a limited amount of the world

But remember that anxiety's skill is in deception.  It wants you to believe that the fears are real.  It wants to do this because your brain is so very good at using tiny amounts of information to create predictions. Here, predict how this thing would fly through the air if thrown:

Okay, now imagine how it would taste and feel if you were eating it

Okay, now imagine how it would taste and feel if you were eating it

Have you ever thrown one of these? Tasted one? Yet your brain was pretty good at imagining what it would be like.  But what if that slug was actually made out of licorice? Does it throw differently or taste differently? How about if it was made from glazed clay? 

Anxiety makes us believe that something will taste and feel like slug, even once we taste the licorice or feel the smooth ceramic texture.  

Are you having a hard time thinking of the slug as something other than a slimy, bland, chewy yuckness? Anxiety does this with our thoughts too, convincing us that what we feel, hear, think and know are not true and that the worry is true. 

On an airplane, the door closes and you start feeling like you need to get off right away.  Suddenly the seatbelt is too tight, the air too dry, the noise too loud and the plane flight too dangerous.  The anxiety is there, your worry about being in a small, closed space, and so is your brain trying to make sense about why you are feeling this way. By making these predictive connections to the seatbelt, the plane and the blowing, dry air it also gives the anxiety other vectors for encroachment the next time. The biggest problem with this is that it starts to make us believe that the real problem is these things, not that anxiety is trying to push us around. 

Once we believe these fears are real, we start to avoid them, prepare for them or otherwise validate the anxiety.  We fly less frequently, we don't share a cab with friends, we don't try to SCUBA dive, we may even start to see anxiety creep into areas that were completely safe before, like our own home. 

But, by understanding this, we also are given the tool.  Palliative, long-term, durable change is obtained by paying close attention to what is fear, what is anxiety and what is neither.  The challenge with this is that the Anxiety-Emotion-Risk Avoidance loop is often so strong that it helps to have someone (ahem, maybe a counselor like me) help you evaluate what is happening in your life to determine which things are migrated effects of anxiety and which are legitimate concerns.  

As you figure out what is truly a threat and what is unfounded worry or anxiety, you will start to sense that your ability to see the world has started to expand, to become more accurate and to become more clear. So the dirty muddy image at the beginning becomes one more pleasant to live with. 

Unconfronted, anxiety tends to expand, to generalize and to morph into multiple problems.  Anxiety is a nagging feeling of needing to change something but what is often in need of change is the anxiety itself, not the situation.  Anxiety arises from our brain's attempts to use limited, new information to make predictions about the future. It is trying to do this to help us, but it can go horribly wrong sometimes.  The normal or helpful anxiety from trying new things (like roasted slug) may soon become a haunting worry that keeps you from doing and feeling what will truly make you more fulfilled. 

My job as a counselor is to help you challenge your desire to avoid, prepare for, or plan for worry-based outcomes that will probably never happen. I can help you push back against the anxiety. Also in doing this you learn to actively participate in your automatic thoughts, to retrain your brain using your preferred version of reality, which will help supplant the problem-filled reality that maintains the chronic anxiety.