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How Does Anxiety Propel Compulsive Behaviors?

Catherine Cabrera is a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive thinking, and related mental health challenges. After years of living with anxiety and feeling like there was no hope for change, Cabrera explored the underlying purpose of emotions and their interaction with thoughts and behaviors.

 
Executive Contributor Catherine Cabrera

Some people who experience anxiety also find themselves feeling trapped in endless cycles of self-deprecating thoughts and desperately trying to quiet that inner voice however they can. But how does this happen, and why is it so difficult to break the cycle?


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Basics of anxiety


Anxiety’s foundational purpose for humans is to detect threats and protect you from danger ultimately, it, mixed with the fight-or-flight mechanism, comprises the body’s survival system. When you’re feeling anxious, your body is feeling threatened by something, be it emotional, physical, or social. With that said, the perceived threat can feel extremely intense and imminent leaving you feeling desperate for relief. This feeling is exactly where compulsions can begin to form, initiating a seemingly endless cycle. For more information on the function and purpose of anxiety, read this post on my website.


Anxiety’s role in compulsive behavior


First, let’s identify what a compulsion actually is. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘compel’ is defined as “to drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly”. A compulsion is the behavior(s) you engage in, and in this case, it’s with the intent to alleviate the discomfort of anxiety. Sounds helpful, right? “If I do this, my anxiety gets better!” In theory, it’s incredibly helpful! Unfortunately, this actually makes things more difficult for you in the long-run.

 

Think about it this way, every person has their own way of coping with discomfort. For example, people can lean into a variety of things, like reading, video games, kickboxing, and even more risky behaviors like drugs and alcohol, sex, self-harm, etc. All of these behaviors are engaged in with the desire for the same outcome relief. Simultaneously, what can they also be doing?


Distracting you from the actual issue, which is your discomfort with normal, human emotionality.

 

Like with various drugs and alcohol, a tolerance is built up with all of these behaviors - you gradually need something more distracting, more pleasurable, etc. to keep avoiding the emotion you’re trying to escape from. Avoidance sounds great, but what it’s really doing is building up and feeding into that fear of discomfort. You can become less tolerant of your anxiety the more you utilize vices to avoid it.

 

Here’s an example I use with clients: when you’re a kid and you’re trying to fall asleep at night, you may check the closet and under the bed for monsters, you want to make sure you catch them before you’re vulnerable, right? But think of those nights when you’re already in bed, lights are off, and you notice your closet door isn’t completely shut or a strange, dark figure in the corner of your room. Your heart starts racing and you immediately want to hide under the blankets or run away to somewhere you feel safe and protected, both totally fair responses. This happens over and over again, and now you’re nervous to get in bed at all; however, one day, you decide enough is enough and you’re going to face the monster. Like clockwork, the nerves come up and you’re afraid, but you get up and walk toward the closet, reach for the knob, and swing the door open. With your adrenaline pumping, you realize there’s nothing there. That dark figure in the corner of your room? Your chair with a bunch of clothes on it.

 

Your anxiety is like the monster in the closet; it feels real and it is real, but the longer you avoid it, the more room your mind has to create a narrative that feeds into the anxiety. This is what avoidance can do in the long term it makes you become so afraid of the feeling itself, that you gradually become overruled by it. Your life becomes a constant game of cat and mouse, with you running away from it. But, as scary and intimidating as it is, the best thing you can do for yourself is to safely face the feeling you’re afraid of, ideally with support. This way, you can help teach your anxiety how it can better protect you, because whether you like it or not, your anxiety is not your enemy it’s simply overactive because of experiences you’ve had and/or potential neurochemical imbalances that can be helped with medication.

 

In order to get the help you need and to break free from this endless cycle (and yes, you can break it!), you have to admit that it’s a problem and make the choice to face it. But thankfully, you don’t have to do it alone!

 

Conclusion


In theory, it makes sense to want to avoid something that is painful or uncomfortable - it’s a human thing to do! However, when it comes to emotions, the more we avoid them, the more impactful they become your mental health, relationships, work/school, and any other areas of your life. Avoidance instills more fear, while facing and embracing the current discomfort allows you to heal and move forward, rather than constantly feeling afraid and running away from your own emotions.


 

Catherine Cabrera, Resident in Counseling/Therapist

Catherine Cabrera is a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive thinking, and related mental health challenges. After years of living with anxiety and feeling like there was no hope for change, Cabrera explored the underlying purpose of emotions and their interaction with thoughts and behaviors. She has since been passionate about helping others better understand their emotions and use compassion to build a more positive relationship with their thoughts and feelings. She is the owner and founder of Inner Strength Counseling, providing professional mental health care in Virginia.


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