I like to spend a lot of time emphasizing a healthy thought life in place of an unhealthy thought life. For example, a 39-year old dependent woman whose chronic worry is about the bad things that would happen if she was on her own. The thought “if I’m left on my own, it would be terrible” is at the root of her emotional problems. The remedy (though a lot of hard work) is something like “I’ll be ok if I’m on my own.”
A lot of anxiety is also eliminated or reduced through behavior and not just thinking. And a critical thing that maintains anxiety is what is often called SAFETY BEHAVIORS. Safety behaviors are those things people do because “they make us feel safer.” The truth is, these actions don’t actually protect us from any danger.
Consider Linus’ blanket. This classic example from Charlie Brown is a reminder that holding a blanket doesn’t actually reduce anxiety, it actually allows anxiety to thrive. Combat Veterans often tell me that knowing where all of the exit signs are is critical for them to be in a crowded restaurant. People with panic disorder will often bring with them a bottle of pills (even if it’s empty). People with agoraphobia often study maps of malls, or even memorize their preferred food aisles at the grocery stores.
Exit signs, empty pill bottles, and the use of maps are examples of safety behaviors that actually reinforce anxiety. These various forms of Linus blankets also result in increased dependence on these safety behaviors. One of my past mentors, Dr. Dave Novicki, an anxiety specialist from Michigan State University, used to make the comment “when you are ready” with clients practicing exposure therapy for their anxiety. So, when Lisa was ready, driving again was going to help her overcome her anxiety about driving since the car accident.
It is the same with safety behaviors. When a person is ready, they can expose themselves to situations that are anxiety producing AND eliminate their safety behaviors.