THE BLOG

How to Put Your Anxiety Monster on a Diet

07/11/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

My clients often ask me if they will ever be cured of their anxiety disorders. My short answer is "no." But the longer and more helpful answer is that panic disorder, OCD, and others can get smaller and smaller until it is only a shadow of its former self. And more importantly, you can gain the skills in living life to the fullest, even if that means your uninvited anxiety disorder "guest" occasionally comes along for the ride.

The key to shrinking an anxiety disorder is to consider this: "How can I put my anxiety monster on a diet?"

Who is this anxiety monster? That's the voice in your head stating, "What if something bad happens?" or "What if I make a fool of myself?" or "How can I be sure I am making the perfect decision?" I don't mean to demonize the anxiety monster. After all, its actual purpose is to protect you from danger, pointing out all the possible negative outcomes. It's an important and necessary part of your mind, especially when confronted by an immediate threat.

But anxiety can grow big and strong, taking over when there is nothing imminent to fear. In these moments, it exaggerates both the likelihood of harm as well as just how bad it would be if the feared negative event were to really occur. Anxiety disorders are real and serious, but they can be treated effectively.

One powerful approach to reduce the role of anxiety is to look for opportunities to put the monster on a diet by withholding favorite "foods." There is nothing this monster enjoys more than your avoidance of fears, reassurance that negative events will not occur, plus a whopping heap of compulsive behaviors. It doesn't matter if your monster appears as panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It always has the same job -- demanding that you play it safe and avoid all potential harm, no matter the cost. It doesn't care if you are miserable and dissatisfied with your life. As long as you survive and don't end up in harm's way, the anxiety monster is content. But are you content with merely living to survive?

Putting your anxiety monster on a diet is a Herculean task, requiring determination, consistency, and a whole lot of hard work. The first step is to take an inventory of what your anxiety requires of you. Here's an example: Bob's anxiety tells him that when he is driving on the highway, he might have a panic attack, lose control of his car, and cause a horrible accident. It demands these items from him:

1) He must always drive with the windows open.
2) He must drive on side roads, even if it means doubling his travel time to work.
3) If he needs to travel on a highway, his wife must drive.
4) He can't work out because he could pass out while exerting himself physically.
5) He is willing to meet his monster's ever-increasing demands for moments of short-term relief.

But this game is rigged. Yes, when you give the anxiety monster what it wants, it may cozy up for a brief nap and quiet down for a bit. But it is really just growing stronger and more powerful. Never satisfied, it will keep demanding more and more of your life, and you will receive shorter periods of reprieve.

This may be consistent with your experience. Are you familiar with this insatiable nature? You may be ready to stand strong in the face of your anxiety monster's demands. By your not giving in, it will learn to quiet down. You will learn that there is nothing to fear and that at times you do not need to be on guard, scanning for the next catastrophe on the horizon.

If this resonates with you, help is available. You can put your anxiety monster on a diet by seeking treatment. My recommendation is that you contact a mental health professional trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or pharmacotherapies, or both. You can search for a therapist in your area on the ADAA website to help you with this challenging, but very important work.

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