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It would be nice to believe that we’ve all arrived at the same clear, simple, rational understanding of anxiety – why it happens, why it does what it does to us, and what we can do about it. But the truth is that for some people (lots and lots of people) the jury is still out. And that jury being out leaves way too many of us flailing in the dark when it comes to what we can and should do about anxiety.

I work with some wonderful people via Facebook on the subject of anxiety. Through them I have had access to a large (and I mean BIG) group of people who are all battling anxiety. As in hundreds of people. It’s great, even brilliant that we have the capacity these days to make contact with other anxiety fighters and find support – I sure as hell didn’t have any of that “back in the day.”

But what isn’t brilliant is the troubling amount of misinformation that is floating around out there, and perhaps especially in the world of the internet. Today’s post is about identifying and debunking some of the worst of that misinformation.

Why do this? Because anxiety is particularly good at making us give up, just stop trying, if we think that we are dealing with something that we can’t change. The inaccurate beliefs/assumptions I’m tackling today are especially insidious when it comes to getting us to give up – and that isn’t useful.

So, let’s tackle some less-than-useful thinking around what anxiety is…

Theory 1

Anxiety is Genetic

There are some people, doctors included, who are fond of the notion that anxiety is a genetic disorder or problem. I’m not 100% certain why they have come to this conclusion, but it’s wrong.

This isn’t to say that certain tendencies that can be influenced by genetics don’t potentially increase the possibility that we may wrestle with anxiety, under some conditions. It has been argued in some theories of anxiety that anxiety fighters have two specific traits – we’re smart and we’re a little more sensitive to stimuli that perhaps other people.

(Yeah, I said smart. As in intelligent. So far, in my experience, I have no evidence that contradicts this notion. I’ve never met a dumb anxiety fighter. In fact the opposite seems to be true – we are the ones who OVERTHINK things.)

Certainly both of those traits are influenced by genetics! But neither of these issues decides whether or not we’ll be anxious thinkers. No, it’s learned thinking that brings us to a place of chronic/ongoing anxiety.

Let me say that again: anxiety is a thinking problem. We are not BORN with our thinking tendencies. We learn them as we go along. We have the hardware – our brains. We have to acquire the software – our thinking patterns/assumptions/beliefs.

Theory 2

I drive this discussion so hard because some of us find it very easy to say “oh, well, I’m just an anxious person”, as if anxiety was a personality trait that we are given at birth. Not so. Also not useful. It’s too easy to default to giving up if you think you’re naturally doomed to anxiety.

Anxiety is mainly Biochemical – i.e, it’s a brain disorder

Another theory of anxiety is that there is something fundamentally wrong with one or more of our neurotransmitters, with the usual suspect being Serotonin. Certainly Serotonin is impacted by a number of variables, and there is definitely evidence that says that reduced Serotonin levels are found in people who are dealing with chronic anxiety.

But this only begs the question: which comes first – reduced Serotonin levels or anxious thinking? I am no neurologist. But I can say with a lot of confidence that there is good evidence that chronic anxious thinking (and the resulting Flight or Fight reactions in our bodies and brains) can impact Serotonin levels – specifically, slowly reducing them over time, leaving us with lowered thresholds to stimuli – and thus more prone to Flight or Fight firing up.

This means that if we begin to tackle that anxious thinking, reducing the tendencies to generate “what if” thoughts and the resulting fright responses, we can take Serotonin levels in the opposite direction. Once anxious, always anxious (i.e., we can manage anxiety, but we can never be free of chronic anxiety) simply isn’t true.

Theory 3

I’m not saying it doesn’t FEEL that way. Part of this belief, I suspect, stems from how little we understand our anxious thinking – how dense and quick it can be in the background of our thinking. We’ve been fighting it for years and decades, we’ve tried different things – desensitization, medications, meditation, etc. – but because we didn’t understand this fundamental truth of anxiety – that it is based in anxious thinking – nothing changed for us.

Don’t take my word for ANY of this, btw. Everything I advocate in this work of breaking the hold of anxious thinking is MEANT to be road-tested.

Medication is the only real/workable way to Manage Anxiety

This is a whole conversation by itself, this discussion of the role of meds in dealing with anxiety (see my blog post HERE for some more on this subject.) There’s no question that meds can be, used correctly, a tool that can assist us in this fight.

Meds can, for some people, ease the impact of Flight or Fight reactions to our anxious thinking. Flight or Fight is so scary for the vast majority of us, and in easing that roar of sensations and feelings we can get some better clarity in our thinking.

Theory 4

Unfortunately many of us stop there. And it makes perfect sense. We think “hey, I feel better, why should I keep wrestling with this crap? I just want my life back anyway.” So we don’t do the hard and messy work of cleaning up our thinking –

Which leaves us managing our anxiety with medication. Of course we’re not really managing anything – we’re just keeping the worst of the symptoms at bay. That’s legal – but it isn’t taking us out of chronic anxious thinking.

It isn’t a long journey from this behavior to “I’ve GOT to have meds to manage my anxiety.” Worse, too many people, not understanding the real source of anxiety in the first place, stop at whatever relief they get from their meds – and then live in terror of the day when their meds don’t work, or they are cut off from those meds. Ugh.

Medications CAN’T end anxiety for us. They can give us breathing space. They can help us think a little more clearly to do the work of sorting out and ending chronic anxious thinking. But they can’t, by themselves, change that thinking.

It’s all in our Heads…

No, that doesn’t mean we’re making up anxiety because we’re crazy, lazy or just sad little people. Anxiety is a thinking disorder. And that’s actually a pretty great way to put it – thinking disorder. Because our thinking is out of order when it comes to how we’re framing our world and how we roll in that world.

We’re not “anxious people.” This isn’t a character trait – or flaw. We’re not neurologically damaged, thank you very much. Yeah, neuro-transmitters are impacted by chronic anxious thinking – and we are still free to clean up that thinking. And while it would be great if there really was a pill to take that would make anxious thinking stop, at the moment no such creature exists.

Anxiety is learned. And as I’ve written here before, anything we can learn, we can unlearn – and more importantly, learn differently.

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