How anxiety, irrational fear, obsessions and compulsions are maintained
When we experience anxiety, fear, obsessions and compulsions that keep us from being our usual, charming selves, we are curious about “how we got this way?” Sometimes the answer can be obvious, for example, a trauma or the presence of a long-lasting stressful time could be the cause. Often, it may not be obvious. Some of us are more sensitive to stress triggers than others. It’s just a psychobiological fact. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. That sensitivity can actually become an asset in understanding others and ourselves.
Finding an event or a root cause may be impossible. More importantly, we need to understand that it is not necessary to “figure out” how we got his way. It is much more important to understand “why we stay this way” and how to change.
Some fears are learned. Certainly, individuals can experience traumatic events that caused the development of learned fear reactions to stimuli. Our temperament can be a basis for anxiety/disgust/feeling bad. For example, researchers as early as 1991 identified shy and timid temperaments evident in infancy that often persist as a child grows. Some individuals seem to have a greater sensitivity or vulnerability to developing clinical anxiety. It isn’t necessary to have a specific trauma in order to develop an anxiety disorder or OCD.
Why we stay this way? Reducing fear has more to do with what sustains it than what caused it. Similar to other animals, our brains are equipped with the ability to sense danger and motivate us to either fight or flee from the perceived dangerous situation. Anxiety does not feel good and escape brings a physiological reward in the form of a reduction in the unpleasant physiological sensations anxiety produces. Therefore, escape and other safety behaviors (avoidance, compulsions, seeking reassurance) provide this sense of relief that is reinforcing for the individual (negative reinforcement) and maintains avoidance or escape behaviors. These tendencies are frequently called fight or flight.
Efforts to avoid the unpleasantness of anxiety prevents people with anxiety from having disconfirming experiences and easily leads to the belief that anxious feelings will not stop until one escapes. We have learned that the most effective approach to reducing anxiety is a systematic approach. Individuals learn to face their fears through a series of small steps. Trained clinicians can help us design an approach that isn’t overwhelming so that triggers don’t set off the alarm bells of fight or flight. Thus, we get used to the triggers (habituate) and they no longer dictate what we do with our lives.
David Barnhart, EdD
Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor