(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Dr. Kenner: Here’s a question from David. Think about this: Have you ever felt really anxious and really worried about something, and then you resolve that issue and then you start worrying about something else? Resolve that issue and then you start worrying about something else? And you feel like it’s unending. That’s what’s happening to David. Let's see what he can do about that.
“Hi Dr. Kenner. I’ve heard that people who have generalized anxiety often have misplaced anxiety. Instead of having just a free-floating anxiety, they become anxious about something specific, such as fear of flying, or maybe being insecure about the shape of their nose. But the worries never cease. I am like that. I cannot remember the last time I was not worrying about something. From a very young age, I would always worry about something. When one thing seemed resolved or overcome, I started worrying about something else. How can I stop moving from one worry to another? I cannot remember ever being free of worry. Is my worrying caused by my genes? Or by watching my mother, who always worries? Do we learn it from our parents? I cringe at the thought of taking medication. Am I justified in cringing? I consider myself a very reasonable person. I have a productive life and I do a great deal of introspection. Yet the very thought that I am weak because I can’t control my worries adds to my state of mind. What are your thoughts? David.”
I have a few thoughts. Let’s take the one at a time. One is, what is generalized anxiety? It’s chronic worrying about yourself, just as you describe, about yourself, your family, your friends, your health, finances, school, sometimes it’s free-floating and then you want to anchor it to something. Because free-floating anxiety, just feeling nervous for no reason at all, is freaky. So people usually try to latch on to something, and in order to get this diagnosis, you have to have it more days than not for at least six months. You have to have a lot of trouble controlling your worries and it can cause you significant distress and you have to have all the physical symptoms of being anxious. Maybe you’re shaky, maybe your muscles are real tense. You’re clenching your jaw and sweating or having a nervous twitch or whatnot.
What about that diagnosis? Would you want that label? Wouldn’t want that label. Have there been times in my life when I’ve worried? And then worried about something else when the first thing cleared up? Certainly. Dr. David Burns has some thoughts about that, about the whole idea of pathologizing everything. He says, “Almost every therapist has worried about things, has struggled with some sort of anxiety. Shyness, public speakings, phobias, obsessions, and does that mean we all have brain diseases or some sort of bad genes and need medication?” And Dr. David Burns argues no. He says that anxiety and worry are very common and you don’t want to pathologize people unnecessarily. And it also, when you give someone a diagnosis, they often feel defective or ashamed. What does that do? That just intensifies their bad feelings. He also thinks they jump to very negative conclusions. “Oh my God, I’ve got a brain disease,” and most of the time that’s untrue. You feel powerless. You feel like you’re the victim of forces outside of your control, so you need pills. Well, pills don’t teach skills. And you can learn the skills to address what’s called generalized anxiety, and they’re wonderful skills. They’re fun to learn and they lift your anxiety.
So what is anxiety? Anxiety is uncertainty about something important in the future, or it’s about self-doubt. When is it a problem? When it’s not consistent with the facts or it’s not productive. Maybe watching your mom worry all the time helped you build that habit, but it’s not carved in stone. You can challenge your premises, your core ideas. If you have a view of the world, for example, that it’s unsafe and bad things always happen, then you’ll always be on the lookout for, “Oh my God, what if something bad happens?” You can say to yourself, “What if something doesn’t happen? Maybe I can handle it.” There are skills you can use. I recommend the book When Panic Attacks, the new drug-free anxiety therapy that can change your life, by Dr. David Burns. I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner.