Worrying is hard-wired into the human brain. Worry helps us prepare for potential challenges. It’s only natural to be anxious when turbulence causes a plane flight to be particularly bumpy, for example. It is also to be expected that the next time you contemplate flying, you will experience some of that anxiety, especially if the weather is threatening.
It is only when worrying goes off the rails that anxiety becomes a disorder. “If we look more closely, it seems that many of these same people begin to develop a general maladaptive framework for operating in the world,” notes anxiety expert R. Reid Wilson, Ph.D. Someone with anxiety disorder develops a belief system that danger and loss of control of one’s circumstances can come quickly and without warning.
Safety becomes the most important thing. The discomfort of anxiety itself becomes the enemy, and must be gotten rid of at all costs, either by escaping or morbid worry or both. They “don’t want to feel any distress, and the goal of the worry is to stop or avoid uncomfortable symptoms as soon as they arrive,” Wilson says.
Two other factors add to the intractability of anxiety disorder, Wilson adds: “People who are prone to anxiety doubt that they have the inner resources to manage their problems, so they use worry to brace for the worst outcome…” And secondly, “Anxious people don’t want to make mistakes, believing they will have dire consequences.” This suite of unhealthy beliefs becomes what Wilson calls “a powerful force structured within a powerful fortress.”
Paradoxically, then, anxiety disorder doesn’t mean the fact of being anxious. Anxiety disorder occurs when fear of anxiety causes one to be paralyzed with worry, engage in harmful escapist behaviors, and to be unable to act on one’s environment to make healthy changes. That’s the anxiety disorder game. When you play the game by anxiety’s rules, anxiety wins.