My clients often ask me if they will ever be cured of their anxiety disorders. The short answer to this is No. The longer and more helpful answer is that an anxiety disorder can get smaller and smaller until it is only a shadow of it's former self. And more importantly, one can gain the skills in living life to its fullest, even if that means the uninvited guest of an anxiety disorder may occasionally come along for the ride.
The key to shrinking an anxiety disorder is to play a game of "how can I put my anxiety monster on a diet?" Who, you may ask, is the anxiety monster? The anxiety monster is the voice in your head stating, "What if something bad happens" or "What if I make a fool of myself" or "How can I be sure I am making the perfect decision", to name a few of the anxiety monster's favorite tunes. I don't mean to demonize the anxiety monster. After all, he (or she, depending on the gender of your anxiety monster...mine seems to have masculine energy ) is actually trying to protect you from future harm. His job is to point out all of the possible negative outcomes that may occur. He is an important and necessary part of your mind. Thanks to him, your ancestors survived due to their ability to "fight, flight or freeze" when confronted by an immediate threat. The problem is when the anxiety monster grows too big and strong and takes over at times when their is in fact nothing imminent to fear. In these moments, the anxiety monster is exaggerating both the likelihood of harm as well as just how bad it would be if in fact the feared negative event were to occur.
So, one powerful approach to reduce the role of anxiety in life is to always look for opportunities to put the anxiety monster on a diet...to slim him down by withholding his favorite snacks. There is nothing the anxiety monster enjoys snacking on more than a smorgasbord of avoidance of feared stimuli and reassurance that negative events will not occur, and a whopping heap of compulsive behaviors for dessert. It does not matter if your anxiety monster shows up as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, he always has the same job to do. He may have a different look and feel but he wants the very same thing for you; he demands that you play it safe and avoid all potential harm, no matter the cost. The anxiety monster does not care if you are miserable and dissatisfied with your life. As long as you survive and do not end up as a tasty meal for a lion or tiger or bear (oh my), the anxiety monster is content. But are you content with merely living to survive?
But putting an anxiety monster on a diet is nothing short of a Herculean task. It requires determination, consistency and a whole lot of hard work. The first step is to take an inventory of what your anxiety monsters demands you feed him. For example, let's look at what my client Bob's anxiety monster demands of him. Bob's anxiety monster tells him that when he is driving his car on the highway, he may have a panic attack and lose control of the car and be responsible for a horrible accident. Bob's anxiety monster demands that 1. he always drive with the windows open 2. He avoid highways and instead take side roads, leading to double the travel time to get to work 3. If he ever does need to travel on a highway, that he have his wife drive 4. He not work out because he may also pass out when exerting himself physically 5. He be willing to meet ever increasing demands in order to have moments of short term relief. The problem is the game of "quiet down the anxiety monster" is rigged. Yes, when you give the anxiety monster what he wants, he may cozy up for a brief nap and quiet down for a bit. But in reality, he is just growing stronger and more powerful after each meal. He can never be satisfied and will keep demanding more and more of your life in order to obtain shorter periods of reprieve. Is this consistent with your own experience? Have you gotten to know his insatiable nature?
Perhaps it is time to try something different. You may be ready to stand strong in the face of your anxiety monster's demands. By not giving in, he will learn to quiet down. He will learn that in fact there is nothing to fear and that he can take more of rest. He will learn that there are times when he does not need to be on guard, scanning for the next catastrophe in the horizon. This can be a win win, for both you and your anxiety monster.