Why Anxiety Treatments Fail and How to Make Them Work
My experience with anxiety is both personal and professional. After a great deal of exploration as a young man to find the cure, I stumbled upon a concept that relieved the amount of suffering I seemed to be experiencing from anxiety.
Later in life, when I became a psychotherapist, I recognized anxiety as the number one complaint for which individuals sought mental health care. I have been taught a number of different techniques throughout my formal training and the gold standard was always considered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT sometimes seemed to be a powerful technique to help people limit their suffering from anxiety. I quickly discovered that this gold standard, more often than not, did not seem to provide any form of permanent relief — in fact, in many cases, it was a complete failure. Clients would return with escalated anxiety months sometimes years later, but most often, they would return.
Over decades I explored various other formal techniques through continuing education, Hypnosis, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Exposure Therapy, Narrative Therapy, Rational Behavioural Therapy, Meditation, Somatic (Body Based) Skills training (i.e. Breathing Exercises), TAPPING, and a whole lot more. The result was the same, some worked well or not at all, and none seemed to last.
Everything seemed to not do much more than put a band-aid on the problem!
So what happened in my office in those days and continues to happen in almost all therapist offices today?
First, we need to recognize our brains are all wired differently. No two of us think alike, so it’s not reasonable to assume that there would be a one-size-fits-all solution.
But when a solution seemed to fit, why did it never seem to stick long-term? Good question, read on…
Second, and this is the magic bullet. (Read carefully because we really need to find the humility and curiosity to embrace this magic bullet….)
If our differences mean there is no one-size -fits -all solution, our commonality is where we find the key to why that which seemed to work, never lasts.
Buckle in, there is a little nerdy neuroscience here, but you deserve to know where this is coming from as it makes it easier to embrace. If science is not your bag, don’t worry, I promise to make this palatable!
At the base of our skull is a small region of the brain, the amygdala, often called our ‘Flight/Fight Centre.’ It is a primal region of your brain that is fully developed at birth and does not continue to learn beyond that. This small but mighty system you can consider a ‘stand-alone system’ whose job is only three-fold. It’s not complex, and it’s not linked to the bigger part of your brain that does all your smart thinking and reasoning.
Here it is, just THREE things it does in a never-ending loop:
- It scans for potential danger
- It alerts you to the incoming danger
- It gets your body to run or fight.
Ok, so what does this mean to us who are frankly sick and tired of being sick and tired? We experience everything from uncomfortable feelings, to horrible body sensations (heart pounding, sweating, dizziness, brain fog), and full-on panic attacks. I know many of you have wound up in the emergency only to have your anxiety escalate and as team of docs and nurses worked you up for a possible heart problem, then tossed you out when your ticker proved fine with the unhelpful admonishment. “It’s just a panic attack.” Arrrrrgh!
So here is the magic bullet:
The part of your brain that causes all these fight-and-flight thoughts and feelings IS YOUR FIGHT centre, AND since this part is not linked to the rational part of your brain.
ANYTHING YOU DO TO FIGHT OFF THESE FEELINGS, FROM MEDITATION TO CBT IS A FIGHT!
And that is all this part of your brain notices — it senses you are in a fight, so does more of what it does to get you ready to fight — and you feel more of those feelings. It is a nasty circle.
STOP THE FIGHT!
BREAK THE CIRCLE!
So how? This is where it can get a bit tricky. We have been wired to run from and or fight off things that hurt. This includes these anxiety symptoms. We have seen therapists and tried all the tricks and tips to fight these feeling off! Stop the fight and break the circle.
And since you’ve had a lot of practice fighting this off, maybe even with a ‘professional’ this can be a hard habit to break.
Find ways, perhaps with the help of an informed therapist or coach, or even by simply naming the part of your brain something cute and simple. Use any of the multiple tools or a good book you may know to comfort and coddle this little primitive part that is only trying to do its job. I call mine Homer. Homer is like a colicky baby, you may have no idea why he is screaming, but fighting with an infant never calms the little one down. A warm bottle may do the trick, but only as a pacifier, not as a weapon! Use your tools with kind and loving intentions.
Likely, you have been fighting this for years, and fighting these feelings is a well-ingrained habit. Breaking habits can be hard, it takes a ton of ‘Intention, Repetition, and Gratitude’ to break a habit, and the same is true here. This is where a good coach or therapist can come in — helping you reframe your opinion of this powerful little life-saving part of your brain, from a problem to an asset. Be kind to Homer, he’s just doing his job. He will respond in kind.