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A Formula for Anxiety Disorders?
July 11, 2011

Simple Ways to Tame Anxiety

July 11, 2011
Volume 11, Issue 7

Do anxiety disorders follow a "formula"? What would it be? How could we use it? This month's issue of Anxiety Coach® takes a look at this question.

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A Formula for Anxiety Disorders?

Last week I was helping my son, as best I could, with algebra and geometry. Lots of formulas and equations to solve.

I found myself thinking about the "formula" for an anxiety disorder. If there were a formula for anxiety disorders, what would it be?

Here's what I came up with.


Biological Vulnerability + Learned Vulnerability
+ Misunderstanding of Mind = Anxiety Disorder

Biological Vulnerability

We all come into this world as newborns with varying tendencies toward anxiety, and lots of other things, already established in our biology. Some people are good candidates, by virtue of their biological heritage, to experience an anxiety disorder. Others are unlikely to do so, short of some terribly traumatic event. This predisposition toward anxiety seems to run in families. A family line which includes several people who experienced anxiety disorders two generations back is much more likely to have present members who experience anxiety disorders, than is a family which had none.

We don't really know the specific biological mechanisms by which this tendency to anxiety sensitivity is passed down. However, if you visit some newborns in the hospital, you'll see how variable they are in the way they respond to light, sound, touch, and so on.

Learned Vulnerability

Young children form impressions of the world. Some come to see the world as their oyster, expecting only good things. Others come to view the world as full of unpredictable, unmanageable dangers for which they're poorly prepared. Most of us fall somewhere in between. This viewpoint will stick with us throughout life. We can learn new viewpoints which will moderate it, and that's how cognitive behavioral treatment works. But we don't ever completely lose the original learning, and when we're stressed, we're liable to fall back on it.

Misunderstanding of Mind

We live in the physical environment around us, the "real world". It's full of people, buildings, animals, cars, flowers, weeds, and many other objects.

There's a rule which governs our interactions with the material world. It's this: the harder you try, the more you struggle, the more likely you are to get what you want.

So if what you really want is a lush, weedless lawn, or a corner office with a view, you can improve your chances by working hard for it.

However, we also experience an internal world, one of thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. There's a different rule in this world. It's this: the more you oppose a thought, emotion, or sensation - the more you try to get rid of it or avoid it - the more you have it.

The rule in our internal world is the opposite of the rule in the material world. And God help you if you didn't get the memo about the second rule, and try to control your internal world by applying the rule that only works in the real world. It'll bring you to grief every time.

If you treat your thoughts, sensations, and emotions as if they were objects - if you struggle to rid yourself of the unwanted ones - you're likely to find your troubles mounting. This is how the vulnerabilities get ramped up into a full blown anxiety disorder, and maintained despite your best efforts. If you find that "the harder I try, the worse I get" describes your efforts to solve an anxiety disorder, then you may be using the wrong rule.

Learning to work with, rather than against, the internal symptoms of an anxiety disorder is the way out. Responding to the symptoms with acceptance methods, rather than anti-anxiety, is the way out. This is what Claire Weekes meant by "float", and it's just as true today as when she first wrote it.

Using the Formula

Look again at the terms of this formula:

Biological Vulnerability + Learned Vulnerability
+ Misunderstanding of Mind = Anxiety Disorder

Where is your best opportunity to make a difference? It's with the third term, the misunderstanding of the mind. Learning to respond to your internal world of thoughts, emotions, and sensations in a more accepting way will usually prove to be your best method for recovery.

See you next month!


Dave Carbonell, Ph.D.

Investigation of Phobia "Expert"
Wins Broadcasting Award

WGN-TV News won a "Silver Dome" Award from the Illinois Broadcasters Association for their investigative report, "Man Claiming to Cure Phobias exposed by WGN News". The award, for Best Hard News, was given to producer Marsha Bartel and reporter Mark Suppelsa on June 15. To see the original broadcast, click here.

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