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Logic Won’t Help Your Anxiety

Why intellectual knowledge may not be as useful as experiential knowledge.

Escrito por Ben Eckstein, LCSW

Logic Won’t Help Your Anxiety

01 Ben Eckstein, LCSW is a therapist specializing in the treatment of OCD and Anxiety Disorders.

02 In this article, he shares five reasons why we can’t argue our way out of anxiety.

03 By not reinforcing our fears, and avoiding self judgment, we can begin to practice healthier coping strategies.

We all feel anxious sometimes. It’s a common emotion, and a necessary part of the human experience. Anxiety alerts us of danger and helps us stay safe. But sometimes, it shows up in places where it’s not helpful — places where we know there isn’t any danger. Our emotional system can get a little sloppy sometimes, setting off our fear response out of an abundance of caution at the slightest inkling of a threat. 

It’s tempting in these moments to try to reason with it and pull out our keenest powers of logic and rational thought to put anxiety back in its place. As you may know, this does not always work. Here are five reasons why: 

1. Fear is not logical. 

If fear were logical, we’d all be scared of exactly the same things. We’d gather the annual data from the National Center for Health Statistics and update our fears each year in accordance with our most likely cause of death. The things we would be scared of would be directly in proportion to the actual danger in our lives — but this is not how it works. If fear were logical, people would be flocking to my office looking for help with their heart disease phobia, but that rarely happens. Instead, they come with phobias of unlikely calamities like sharks and plane crashes and public speaking. Our fears are not directly or logically connected with likely risk. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think the NCHS has identified any deaths related to public speaking! 

Our fears are not directly or logically connected with likely risk.

2. You’re dealing with the wrong part of your brain. 

Our brains are complex and involve a complicated framework of different regions and neural networks. While there is plenty of communication between these different regions, we cannot access the parts that we would like simply because we want to. When we’re experiencing anxiety, we’re primarily dealing with our limbic system. This is a fairly primitive part of our brain, featuring the amygdala and hippocampus — two key players in our emotional system. When our limbic system is activated, we’re in survival mode. We’re not concerned with puzzling through complex problems because we’re too focused on trying to escape an immediate threat. Another part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for more complex tasks, such as judgment, organizing, planning, and predicting long-term consequences. While this is an immensely useful part of our brain, it is generally not the part at the helm when we’re in a moment of panic

3. Experience is a better teacher than knowledge. 

I know that planes are safe. Like you, I’ve heard all of the statistics about how I’m more likely to die on the way to the airport than on the plane. And yet, when the plane hits a patch of turbulence, my stomach jumps up into my chest and I grab my armrests. So why do I feel anxious at that moment, yet completely fine in my car on the way to the airport? I drive in cars every day, and even though it’s probably the riskiest activity that happens in my life, it doesn’t evoke anxiety. I’ve done it enough that my brain can tune out the fact that I’m hurtling along the road in a giant hunk of metal.

Now, let’s consider the plane ride: when we hit turbulence, the flight attendants don’t miss a beat. They’re smiling and passing out drinks, unconcerned with the bumpy ride. This is not because they know something different than me; it’s because they ride on planes every day. They have accumulated enough experience for their brains to go through turbulence without setting off an alarm. It’s not what they know, it’s what they’ve done. 

4. You may actually be reinforcing your anxiety. 

Remember, your anxiety is not an indicator of danger; it’s your brain’s hypothesis that there might be danger. When it sets off that alarm, it’s looking to you to confirm or refute the hypothesis. If, in that moment, you jump into problem-solving mode, your brain gets confirmation that there was a problem to be solved! It learns that it was correct to have set off that system. After all, if there was no danger, why did you jump into action? The next time you encounter this type of situation, your brain is very likely to assume that it’s dangerous again. 

For example, let’s say that I touch a doorknob and have the thought, “Oh no! What if I get sick?” If I proceed to wash my hands — and presumably, don’t get sick — all that my brain has learned is, “I am safe because I washed my hands.” If I don’t wash them? Certain doom. 

Your anxiety is not an indicator of danger.

It’s tempting to think that as long as everything works out, our brains will adjust. If we can navigate our way through life without catastrophe, then our mind will finally settle and let its guard down. In reality, it needs our help. We have to show it through experience that our anxiety was just a false alarm. 

5. You may be gaslighting yourself. 

When you tell yourself that you shouldn’t be anxious, you invalidate your own experiences. Instead of being helpful, you’re likely now piling shame and frustration on top of the anxiety that was already there, for a lovely cocktail of anxious despair. Instead, make space for your uncomfortable feelings and practice self-compassion. The pain of anxiety may be inevitable, but the suffering of self-judgment is avoidable. It’s okay if your anxiety doesn’t make sense — you don’t have to wrangle it into submission. Validate your experience by making space for your feelings without judgment. 

The Takeaway 

Your ability to intellectually argue with anxiety will not make it go away. Logic and reasoning are not bad; after all, my belief that I will be safe is what allows me to get onto planes and in front of crowds of people. It’s the experiential act of doing these things that will ultimately pave the way to living a life unconstrained by anxiety. Logic is an amazing asset, but experience may be a more useful tool in managing anxiety.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ben Eckstein, LCSW is a therapist specializing in the treatment of OCD and Anxiety Disorders.  He is the owner of Bull City Anxiety in Durham, North Carolina and is also a writer, speaker, and clinical trainer.  Ben serves on the board of directors for OCD North Carolina.  To stay connected, visit www.bullcityanxiety.com or follow @bullcityanxiety.

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