When it comes to dealing with an anxiety disorder, oftentimes our automatic response may be the wrong response. Let me explain. If you’re walking through the woods and see a grizzly bear on the trail in front of you, then your best response probably is to get away as quickly and as quietly as you can. Though in this case you would of course feel some anxiety, this wouldn’t be an anxiety disorder because the danger is real and her response was appropriate given the circumstances. However, if while driving you get anxious as you approach a bridge, and the bridge appears to be in good working condition, we would probably say that your response here is exaggerated and not in line with the actual amount of danger you would face when crossing the bridge. In this case we would probably say you have anxiety disorder this, your escaping the confrontation with the grizzly bear is appropriate, but your “escaping” your encounter with the bridge would be inappropriate. In addition, once this first bridge is avoided the first time it is highly likely that this bridge will also be avoided in the future and a “safer” bridge will be used instead. Since anxiety will often easily and quickly generalize, it is likely that this other “safer” bridge will soon elicit a similar response to the first bridge. And soon this second bridge is avoided and then the next “safe” bridge’s found in the process will repeat itself.
Just because you feel anxious doesn’t mean that you’re in danger. For example, when watching a scary movie in the theater many of us will experience real fear even know we are fully aware that we are not really in danger. Similarly, when we have an anxiety disorder we may feel anxious or afraid in the complete absence of real danger, or our anxiety/fear response is out of proportion to the actual degree of danger. Most of us make the assumption that if we feel anxiety/fear then there must be danger and respond accordingly by trying to avoid or escape whatever we perceive as being dangerous. When the danger is real, as with the grizzly bear above, our automatic response makes sense, but when the degree of danger is either not present at all, or is only minimally present, avoidance actually perpetuates the problem and over time makes the anxiety worse.
An acronym for the word FEAR that captures the essence of what I’m saying above and which many of my clients have found helpful is the following:
F – false
E – evidence
A – appearing
R – real
Robert W. McLellarn, PhD
Anxiety and Panic Treatment Center