Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting nearly one in five Americans each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Joshua Fletcherknown as AnxietyJosh online, a UK-based psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders and author of the forthcoming book “And How Does That Make You Feel?,“ described them to Business Insider as “a fear of fear” and said that certain behaviors known as “white-knuckling,” can make anxiety worse. But a simple change in mindset can help a lot, he said.
White-knuckling can make anxiety worse
White-knuckling is “an old phrase to describe the tension when we hold something,” Fletcher says. “If you’re a nervous passenger in the car, you can ‘white-knuckle’ and hold onto the side or hold onto the seat.” Think of the phrase “white-knuckle-ride.”
There’s nothing wrong with gritting your teeth through truly stressful or unpleasant situations like getting a flu shot. But this becomes white-knuckling in a psychological sense when a person is counting the time until they get out of what should be a non-threatening situation, as opposed to immersing themselves in it and focusing their attention here, he said.
If you dread doing things you know you want or need to do on a regular basis, such as attending social events or giving presentations, and you find that even though you keep doing them you feel overwhelmed and anxiety, you’re probably white-knuckling, he said.
5 signs of white knuckling:
Constantly checking the clock
Counting down how many hours are left
Placing yourself near the door
Only do something if you have a “safe person” or something with you
Using alcohol to get through certain social events
“When we’re white-knuckling, we calm the flight side of our fight or flight response,” he says, referring to the body’s automatic stress response. So every time we count down until we get out of a situation, we’re basically confirming in our brain that there’s a threat and we should run away, he said.
Having safe things or people also means we don’t give ourselves credit for letting situations get difficult for us, she says, which means we keep recovering.
Reinforcing the idea that the situation is frightening in the brain can prevent people from recovering from anxiety disorders and is the reason why these activities continue to feel scary, despite the fact that we do them over and over again, he said.
Fletcher has whitewashed herself before, but as a former anxiety sufferer, she knows it’s possible to overcome the condition and some life-limiting behaviors.
Three steps to regain control of your anxiety
The first step in overcoming white-knuckling is to identify where the problem is, Fletcher said. It could be leaving home or using public transport.
Once you’ve identified the area where you’re struggling, you can come up with a new way of responding to it. Ideally, when anxiety sets in, you want to “chill out” and “do nothing,” says Fletcher, “this is the way.”
“Just keep doing what you’re doing. When you act out of fear, you reinforce the fear wiring in your brain,” he said. Over time, you can rewire your brain to not react to anxiety, he said, which will help it pass more quickly.
This is known as exposure therapy, which is a common anxiety treatment where a person experiences reasonably safe things their threat response, the amygdala in the brain, tells them is dangerous.
“It’s about letting go of those threat response symptoms without trying to respond to it with compulsions or safety behaviors like white-knuckling,” Fletcher says.
But all exposure therapy counts so if you catch yourself white-knuckling that’s OK. It’s best to be very compassionate with yourself and focus on what’s going on around you, she says.
As long as it’s cleared by a medical professional, any kind of exposure is safe, he said.
Finally, Fletcher suggests reading up on the psychology behind the body’s threat response so you can understand what’s going on when you feel anxious. She found it empowering during her own recovery.
If you want more intensive help, which often speeds up the process, he said, look for a cognitive behavioral therapist or a trained therapist Acceptance and Commitment Therapythat can help you cope with specific problems.
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