I’ve been working with patients who have chronic anxiety, phobias, and panic attacks for almost 10 years now. I spent 8 years prior to that living with my own anxiety and panic disorder, and it took 3 years to reverse my condition.
If you’re someone who experiences these things too, I can tell you a few things for certain: you’re not broken and chronic anxiety and panic attacks are completely reversible.
One of the most common things I hear anxiety sufferers tell me is this: “I’ve tried everything.”
And I get that; I’ve been there. Anxiety can drain you and make you feel you’ve tried it all. It makes you feel like giving up because it tells you things like:
- “you’ve tried for years to feel better and you’re as bad as ever…just deal with it.”
- “you’re just an anxious person”
- “you’ve had this for too long, this is the way it’s going to be.”
- “you need this anxiety, it keeps you safe.”
But the fact is this is how anxiety lies to you. It’s not the truth, and you haven’t tried everything. If you had, you would feel better, or at least be well on your way. I know that because I’ve cured myself and I’ve seen others do it too. There’s a strategy, and following it will get you there.
What People Often Mean When They Say “I’ve Tried Everything.”
When I hear this I’ll often say, “ok, tell me what you’ve tried.” I’ve never been able to get a single person to be able to tell me more than 4 things and those things usually include being in counseling for a long time, taking a bunch of different medications, and using a breathing technique a few times.
“I’ve tried counseling.” — Unfortunately, a lot of counseling really misses the mark when it comes to giving people the tools to overcome anxiety, and it becomes just a place to talk about your problems. If that’s the case, you might have left your sessions feeling a little better having vented, but if you’re just doing what you might call “talk therapy” and just talking about your stress week to week, particularly if it doesn’t lead to daily practice at work and home between sessions, then that’s not going usually going to work long term.
“I’ve tried tons of medications.” — Anti-anxiety medications are often a part of treatment for chronic anxiety, panic, or phobias. However, they aren’t enough for most people, and they can give you a false sense that they are “curing” your anxiety when in reality they are masking your symptoms. This sounds like a cure, but it’s not — as soon as the medications wear off, the anxiety often comes roaring back, which starts a cycle of jumping from drug to drug when the last one stops working. It’s sad to see people who have taken medications for years without doing much else and now feel stuck because they’ve run out of options for new medications on top of the fact that the underlying anxiety is often far worse than it was at the beginning.
“I’ve tried breathing techniques.” — When I press people about their use of breathing techniques, what they often mean is they tried it a few times when they were really anxious and it didn’t “work.” But despite the thousands of websites that promote some breathing technique to stop a panic attack, this really isn’t the optimal way to use these techniques. Breath practice works and works well to re-train the nervous system. The breath has direct access to your nervous system and it’s the one automatic function in our body we can consciously take over to send a different message to our brain on whether the environment is safe or dangerous. The breath is powerful. But here’s what happens: people try breath practice a few times and they often try it during an attack. Neither of those two things will usually lead to long-term success.
Anti-Anxiety Interventions Work in the exact OPPOSITE way of Anti-Anxiety Drugs (an important key to understand)
One thing that is critical to understand about powerful psychological interventions is that they work in the exact OPPOSITE way from pharmaceuticals.
Pharmaceutical drugs often work better in the beginning and their effect declines over time. Psychological and physical interventions tend to have a small effect in the beginning and their effect gets stronger over time.
I can speak to this both personally and professionally. When I was beginning my work of reversing my own anxiety, the stuff I was doing I knew would work because I saw good data that it worked in research trials. So I stuck with it even though I didn’t want to and even when I didn’t feel much of the effect right away.
A Key to Reversing Anxiety: Conditioning Your Nervous System
Today, over a decade later, I have so deeply re-trained my body and brain to respond to these anti-anxiety interventions that I can notice anxiety coming on at very low levels and shut them down in just moments. But that didn’t happen for a long time — it required something we call “Conditioning.”
Conditioning is the process of training your body to do something new so well that it becomes automatic and easy. I remember getting my first baseball glove and it was so stiff as to be almost useless for catching a ball. I had to work it everyday for weeks before the leather softened enough to be an almost fluid extension of my hand. It became almost effortless to open and close that glove — and catch any fastballs thrown my way.
The interventions required to reverse anxiety require conditioning your body and mind, consistently and over time replacing poor mental habits with healthy ones. It’s the same process a runner uses to train their body to run a marathon, or a guitar player to move their fingers in particular ways almost effortlessly.
In fact, you conditioned your nervous system to be anxious — and you can condition it for calmness too. Yes, you might have a genetic tendency, and you might have been like this since childhood, but it doesn’t change the fact that this has become a conditioned response and it can be re-conditioned.
But there’s something about anxiety that it tells us another lie: that if an intervention is going to work, I will feel it right now, and my anxiety will go away the moment I use it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, it’s just the opposite. Feeling less anxious is the last piece of the puzzle. It starts with doing something different, which leads to thinking different, which leads to feeling different. Conditioning starts with feeling anxiety and having a different response to it — only after a consistent pattern of changing your actions and re-directing your mind will you begin to feel different.
When it comes to reversing anxiety, conditioning is the name of the game. Trust the research data on what actually changes the brain, work with an experienced licensed clinician, use those interventions regularly and at the right times (I’ll share more about the importance of timing anti-anxiety conditioning tools another time — timing is critical).
You’re not broken, and you can reverse your condition, no matter how much or how long you’ve suffered. I know it sounds hard, I know it feels impossible, I know you just want to feel better now. But if you take the time and do the work, you’ll experience the kind of relief that I and other former anxiety sufferers have experienced.