By Kennedy Shelley
Telling a worrier not to worry only makes them worry more.
That may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious to those who are worried, but here’s the science for the ‘Steady Eddies’ out there who just don’t seem to get the message.
The Journal of Affective Disorders just published a study showing that teaching worriers to use classic relaxation techniques actually causes them to worry more.
Professor Michell Newman at Penn State University in 2011 noted that worriers do this, so they won’t be let down by negative circumstances.
She calls this condition “contrast avoidance.”
In other words, if you expect the worst you will never be disappointed.
There are people who make themselves anxious intentionally. That is their normal.
By paying the anxiety in advance, they don’t suffer letdowns when things go wrong.
To some of us, this seems utterly ridiculous, but it is a coping strategy employed by some people. Professor Newman said:
“This isn’t actually helpful, yet, given that most of the things one is apt to worry about never occur, the brain’s takeaway may be, she says, ‘I worried, and it didn’t happen, so I should continue worrying.'”
Unless the worrier learns new coping strategies, to see the damage done by advanced worry, then just trying to relax actually increases anxiety.
The perplexity of “relaxation induced anxiety” has been known for nearly 50 years, but this study shows that worriers actually prefer to be anxious rather than relax.
The study took a group of 96 people, 32 with anxiety disorders, 34 with depression and the rest of the control group.
They were all given instruction and watched videos which have been shown to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation in most people.
The results were profound with increased anxiety when worriers tried to get in a relaxed state.
Anxiety increased some when depressed people worked on relaxing.
Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” And this may be true with worriers.
Trying to solve anxiety through relaxation just doesn’t work. The findings suggest that you have to solve the problem by helping people realize that their thinking and problem-solving strategy has a flaw and deal with the anxiety at that level rather than trying to solve the symptom of anxiety by trying to relax the worrier.
Dr. Newman believes: “Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”
So, telling a worrier to “calm down” is not only a waste of time, it actually makes the problem worse.
Dr. Newman’s graduate assistant in the experiment said:
“People who are more vulnerable to relaxation-induced anxiety are often the ones with anxiety disorders who may need relaxation more than others,” Kim said. “And of course, these relaxation techniques were meant to help, not make someone more anxious.”
Now that you know trying to force an anxious person to relax actually makes them more anxious (if they suffer from an anxiety disorder) do you think you can avoid the temptation to tell them to “chill out?”