Addicted To Anxiety

06 August 2016 Written by 

Is Stress Your Drug Of Choice?


From Addiction Professional By Dennis Ortman, PhD: Patients can work in a 12-Step mode toward managing their reactions to harmful anxiety.

As a psychologist in private practice, I am sometimes astounded at the persistence of the illnesses of some of my patients. It seems that their illnesses consume them. Sometimes I suspect that they have come to love their conditions and identify with their sick role. Consciously they hate their condition, but secretly they love it, deriving some benefit. Anxiety, in particular, seems to be one of those stubborn, treatment-resistant conditions.

For example, Rachel, a woman who battled anxiety for decades, told me, “I can’t even imagine not worrying. I don’t know who I would be if I were not an anxious person. It would be scarier for me not to have something to worry about.”

Anxiety, sometimes called stress, is the most common and chronic mental health condition in our fast-paced society. It is so rampant that some people think being stressed out is normal. Research indicates that more than one-quarter of adults and nearly one-third of children will experience a clinical level of anxiety during their lifetime. For many, I believe, their anxiety, fear and worry become so persistent that it acts like a drug: exciting, numbing and possessing them.

When I suspect that a patient is addicted to his anxiety, I invite him to consider the following questions:

  • Do you feel powerless to stop your anxious reacting?

  • Does your life feel unmanageable because of it?

  • Does your craving for control interfere with your life?

  • Do you feel hopeless for a cure?

If the patient answers “yes” to these questions, it indicates that he is hooked on his anxiety. The anxiety acts like a stimulant drug that interferes with the person living a full life.

Even if all the conventional therapies the person has tried have not cured his anxiety, there is still hope. I use an approach that has helped countless individuals with a variety of addictions: the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The Steps provide a framework for good therapy. I adapt the Steps in the following ways, which can be summarized in four moves.

Admitting powerlessness

When patients come to me, the first question I ask involves their goal in therapy. Invariably they respond, “I want to get rid of my anxiety.” They tell me about everything they have done to eliminate it, and how nothing has worked.

I then suggest a different approach. “Instead of trying to get rid of it, why don’t we try to accept it, work with it, and learn from it?” I tell them they are powerless over the flow of their thoughts and feelings, their past, and many circumstances in their lives. But I affirm, “You have power over your attitude and behavior regarding your anxiety.”

I explain, “Your thoughts and feelings are like clouds that arise and disappear. They come from you, but are not you. You are the blue sky. Your anxious thoughts and feelings are not as solid as you think.” That perspective often causes them to pause and think, “That really makes sense.”

This first move suggests a clinical question: “What can you learn from your anxiety? What is the message of the pain?”

Having faith in a Higher Power

The anxious mind dwells in a dark cave. It focuses on the negative, on what can go wrong, on “what if” thinking. I remind my patients that they have another mind: a wise, rational mind that views life from the mountaintop. I tell them that they have a power within themselves that probably goes unnoticed because they do not pay close enough attention. It is the power of consciousness.

I invite my patients to become astute observers of themselves. I tell them, “Imagine that your thoughts and feelings flow like a river. You can try to stop the flow. But the waters still get through.

Read more: Addicted to anxiety Steps to recovery

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