Our brains are wired to seek out threats. Some of the threats are real and serious, most of the things our brains focus on, however aren’t real. But, why might you be afraid of just about everything, even though logically you know it’s not justified.
There are endless possible reasons why you’re afraid of everything. And most likely it’s a combination of your genetics, your history, and your environment. But, searching for the reason why, even though it seems logical, isn’t going to make your fear and anxiety go away. That’s like trying to break up a fist fight by trying to first understand what they’re fighting about.
So, what can you do instead?
Challenge your “everything” thinking
No matter how much anxiety someone has, it’s very unlikely that they’re afraid and anxious of everything.
The first task is to challenge the self-talk in your mind. It’s likely a distortion of reality. In psychology we call these kind of thoughts, thought distortions.
Whenever I hear a client speak in absolutes, “always,” “never,” “everything,” “nothing at all,” this is usually a good sign they are latching on to a type of distorted thinking called Black and White Thinking or All or Nothing Thinking.
Our brains try to simply a complicated world by putting things into simple categories. This is all good or this is all bad. Never or always.
Reality rarely works in absolutes, however.
Why is this important? Because the self-talk we have inside our minds, impacts our behavior. Take for example the diagram below.
This diagram explains an important process: our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected. They don’t happen independently of one another, but instead influence one another each and every moment.
This process is the framework for a therapy modality called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The most commonly used modality to treat anxiety.
So, you can see how having the thought of “I’m scared of everything” is going to make you feel and make you behave. Compare this to someone who has the thought, “I’m not scare of everything.” Or someone who has a thought, “I’m scared of a lot of things, but I’m not scare of X, Y, Z.”
The behavioral and emotional impacts of all three thoughts are extremely different. Just by changing a few words of a particular thought.
“Ok, I’m not everything of everything, you’re right, but I’m quite afraid of a lot of things. And it’s limiting me. What can I do about it.”
Trap #1 – Avoiding anxiety reinforces it
Anxiety and fear are tricky. Both are powerful emotions that tell us we are in danger and need to escape. We escape and avoid, get temporary relief, but in the long-term it actually makes our anxiety worse because it slowly reduces our tolerance for anxiety.
You can run from anxiety, but you can’t hide. It will always find you.
Trap #2 – Fighting or trying to “fix” anxiety makes it stronger
Fighting anxiety is like trying to get out of quick sand. The more you fight it, the deeper you’ll be in it.
Trap #3 – Attempting to find and understand the root cause to your anxiety won’t resolve it
Another trap of anxiety is the desire to understand what is causing anxiety. “If I can just understand why this is happening, what caused my anxiety, I can then resolve it.”
This is not a worthwhile pursuit. It’s like trying to break up a fist fight by attempting to figure out why the two people are fighting.
So, trying to problem solve questions like, “Why am I like this” or “What caused my anxiety,” usually leads nowhere productive. And the reality is, the root cause is complex. It’s a combination of an incredibly large amount of variables: genetics, your childhood, your history, and your current environment.
Don’t get me wrong. There is value in understanding our past and how it impacts our present day. But, understanding it won’t bring relief.
Also, it’s extremely difficult to be able to connect the dots to our past and have a deep level of insight when we’re dealing with anxiety. Anxiety can be likened to an altered state of consciousness. It lies to us and tells us to do all sorts of weird things. In order to have a level of insight, we must first directly address the anxiety.
Trap #4 – Other people don’t have anxiety
When we look at other people do things that would make us anxious, it’s easy to fool ourselves that the person isn’t afraid or having anxiety at all: “How do they not get nervous during presentations. I wish I could do that.”
This is often a lie. And this type of thinking reinforces the thinking that we must somehow fix our anxiety.
This thinking often leaves us feeling very isolated and alone in our anxiety: “I’m the only person dealing with this. It’s only a problem I have.”
Often times, it’s usually not the person isn’t experiencing anxiety, it’s that they are dealing with it. They feel it, they don’t like it either, and they continue to move despite it.
And sure, maybe you do have fears and anxiety around things that others around you don’t. But, I guarantee, there’s far more people dealing with the same fears you are then you tell yourself.
You don’t have to be alone in your anxiety.
Changing our relationship with anxiety
Unfortunately you can’t make anxiety go away or fix it. As long as you’re human, you will experience it.
The good news is, is that you can reduce how it impacts you.
A big part of my job as a therapist working with anxiety is to help people shift their thinking away from thinking that their anxiety is the problem, and towards focusing on how they react to their anxiety.
This is a whole new way of thinking for most of us. “Why else go to therapy or to read articles about anxiety if I didn’t want it to go away?”
It makes sense. And there are endless articles and books that will collude with your desire to stop it.
Unfortunately, that’s not how anxiety works.
Part of this shift in our relating to anxiety is acceptance.
I often hear clients mixing up anxiety with complacency. These are not the same.
By acceptance I don’t mean complacency necessary. Because often anxiety takes a lot of work. But, it’s a different kind of work.
We often put our focus in energy in escaping it and fighting it. When really, we need to put our energy into fighting that urge to escape it. A lot of work, but a different type of work
By trying to adopt an attitude of accepting anxiety, we give up the useless struggle of trying to run from it or trying to extinguish it.
Here are some examples of what I mean by acceptance:
- “There’s my anxiety again. I’m going to try to just watch it this time”
- “I haven’t experienced anxiety today. I wonder when it will come back.”
- “My heart is racing. I’ve experienced this plenty of times”
We should even go one step further beyond acceptance. We should strive to want anxiety.
A very scary thing to think about. But, by wanting anxiety, we beat anxiety at it’s own game.
By trying to stop it, it gets stronger. By wanting it, encouraging it, causing it, walking into it, anxiety becomes powerless.
Thoughts are important
Our thinking is very important. It’s a key component of the triangle:
There are two types of thoughts: thoughts we put in our heads on purpose and thoughts that pop into our head randomly, 100% out of our control.
Most of the thoughts we have are the latter. And they have no real value.
These uncontrollable thoughts are 100% normal. We all have them.
Often, these thoughts warn us of things that really don’t pose any risk to us. They are thoughts that say, “What if..”
Which leads us to have thoughts about those thoughts.
It’s important to understand that the thoughts that pop into our mind are not the real issue. It’s our reaction to these random thoughts that are the issue.
It’s our thoughts and judgements about the unrealistic “What ifs” that leads us to feeling anxious.
For example, imagine two people getting on an airplane. They both have an uncontrollable thought enter their mind, “What if the plan has a mechanical failure mid-flight and crashes.”
This is a scary thought for anyone.
Now imagine one person simply notices the thought and says, “That’s an interesting thought. My brain is coming up with some pretty dark what if’s right now.”
And the other person runs with the thought, “I wonder if that’s why the flight is delayed. I did read that’s what happened to that flight that crashed last year. There was delay and then it went down. What if that’s what is really going on.”
The reaction to the initial thoughts leads to two completely different outcomes. The first person is simply being an observer of the chaos that’s popping into their mind. The second person is participating in the chaos.
Stopping worry and fear thoughts
The same trap that exists for the emotions of fear and anxiety, also exist for the thoughts that often lead to them.
The logic: “Well I can’t escape from the anxious and fear I feel. But, I know it starts with a worry thought. So, I’ll work on stopping those thoughts.”
Unfortunately, that’s impossible. And you’re working for anxiety and fear with that strategy.
Again, we are back to acceptance. We also try not to engage with those thoughts. Because engagement leads to rumination, which leads to feelings of anxiety and worry.
What is rumination
Rumination is often thought as uncontrollable. But, that’s not correct.
What is rumination? I prefer, Dr. Michael Greenberg’s (a specialist is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) definition:
Rumination is making a choice to engage in mental problem solving, which includes analyzing, mental reviewing, mental checking, visualizing, monitoring, and directing your focus toward the problem.
I would add to this and say that it’s the illusion of problem solving. Real problem solving has a solution and an end. Rumination there is no end.
In short, rumination is making the choice to engage with the chaotic, unrealistic thoughts.
Examples of ruminating thoughts:
- “Oh! What if I do have a panic attack while crossing the bridge? Well, there is some room to pull off to the side near the center of the bridge? I could go when there isn’t much traffic. I wonder if I’m less likely to panic then…”
- “Stop thinking of the plane having a mechanical issue. You have no idea if it does or not. ”
- “Why is this always popping into my mind? When is it going to stop.”
Even though these examples of rumination seem reasonable and logical responses to the chaotic automatic thoughts, they don’t actually lead to anywhere productive. It’s just busy work that fuels the problem thoughts.
Labeling thoughts is underrated
Labeling what’s going on for us is one of the best ways to react to automatic thoughts. I would also argue, it’s really the only alternative we have besides getting hooked and participating in the automatic thoughts.
The act of labeling the thoughts places us in the role of an objective, non-emotional observer. Here is some language we can use to label our thoughts:
- What if
The good news is that this approach for dealing with our fears, worries, and anxiety can be viewed as a template for dealing with any fear.
My training and experience has taught me that it’s rarely not the content of the fear or worry that’s important. Rather, it’s how we respond to it is the important part.
So, if you are in fact afraid of everything, you don’t need to a unique approach for each individual fear. Instead, what you’ll probably find, is once you develop this new relationship with fear and anxiety, it starts to snowball in all areas of our lives.
Some specific worries and anxieties might be more difficult then others, but the approach is often the same.
Do I need to be concerned and should I seek professional help?
If you feel like it’s negatively impacting your life (no matter how little or how much), I highly encourage you address it with a professional your trust.
From my experience, the earlier someone addresses their concerns, the less time they need to spend in therapy and the less impact it has on their lives.
Unfortunately, many wait. They don’t want to be diagnosed. They fear of the stigma associated with a possible diagnosis. They minimize how much it’s impacting their life and they go it alone or try to ignore it.
Then they come in when they are forced to address it. They can’t go to work anymore, their spouse left them because of their drug/alcohol use, etc.
Though the why question is complex and though many variables were out of our control (e.g., our upbringing and the genes we inherited), there’s a lot more known in regard to effective treatment of anxiety.
Anxiety and fear are treatable. There is hope?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy CBT
CBT address how our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all impact one another. Your clinician will work with you to understand these three components and you will work together to experiment with new behavior that will change other parts of the triangle. Sessions typically around 45 to 60 minutes in length and talk with one another.
Dialectic Behavioral Therapy DBT
DBT is a type of CBT. It also works with our thoughts, behaviors and emotions, but with other skills and approaches.
Mindfulness is a big component of DBT, which is exactly what I described in this article: being an observer of your thoughts rather than a participant. This is a skill we all have, DBT’s goal is to further strengthen this mental muscle. DBT’s approach is that be becoming more aware, we become less reactionary to our environment, our thoughts, and our emotions. And ultimately, we gain more control.
Another key component is acceptance of self. Which is also contradictory. How do we accept ourselves, while also maintaining the desire to change ourselves? DBT aims to address this conflict.
DBT, just like CBT is collaborative between the therapist and client, and session are typically 45 to 60 minutes in length.
Acceptance Commitment Therapy ACT
ACT is also a type of CBT and like DBT has a mindfulness component to it. ACT’s main goal is to help clients identify values and figure out ways to align behaviors with those values.
ACT also works under the assumption that a large part of our anxiety is created by trying to reduce our anxiety. ACT is about learning to accept intense emotions. Not to necessarily complacent, but to give up the struggle of trying to avoid and escape anxiety.
ACT also works under the assumption that clients aren’t broken and therefore something to be fixed.
Exposure Response Prevention (ERP)
ERP is about exposing ourselves to the very things that cause us anxiety.
The premise of ERP is that it challenges the avoidance strategy. Avoidance is a common, maladaptive coping strategy used by people dealing with anxiety.
Logically avoidance makes sense: “This certain situation causes me anxiety, so I will avoid it.” What happens, however, is anxiety becomes increasingly higher the more the person avoids. Avoidance also tends to spread into other areas. In short, avoidance works in the short-term, but it usually causes us more trouble in the long-term.
ERP’s goal is to break this cycle.
ERP is commonly understood as a technique used to habituate our brains to triggers. However, I think a better way to understand it is that it teaches clients that they can in fact lean into the anxiety and face it.