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  • Phil Lane, MSW, LCSW,

Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Always Reduce Anxiety

Reducing anxiety is not as simple as "flipping a switch."

Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Always Reduce Anxiety

  • Positive thinking can be invalidating to some people's experience of anxiety.

  • Throwing an overly simplistic positive thought at anxiety is like telling a physical injury to “just heal.”

  • There is no "one-size-fits-all" fix for anxiety.



You have probably heard these before: “Look on the bright side”; “Focus on the positive”; “It could be worse.” These are the types of things people often say to those who are anxious, worried, or overwhelmed. While the intention is good, the result is not always productive. At times, these types of statements can feel invalidating and minimizing rather than helpful or supportive. They imply that a simple attitude change will rid us of our feelings of worry.


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Stopping or changing an anxious mindset is not as simple as flipping a switch or telling ourselves something positive. If it were this easy, there would be very few anxious people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 30 percent of adults struggle with a diagnosable anxiety disorder at some point in their lives—and that’s just those that are officially diagnosed. Countless others experience anxiety and worry, often on a daily basis. The numbers simply do not support the idea that thinking positive is the antidote to anxiety.


Throwing an overly simplistic positive thought at anxiety is similar to telling a physical injury to “just heal.” The wound can only truly heal in its own time, with the correct treatment and proper attention, based on our unique physicality. Anxiety is no different. There is not an exact prescription for treating anxiety, and this is part of the problem with positive thinking as a “one-size-fits-all” intervention. It may be helpful to some, but not necessarily to all those who experience anxiety. When we assume that a single treatment or intervention can be broadly applied, we fail to understand the uniqueness of each individual’s experience, and this can result in feeling invalidated. In knowing ourselves, it is important to ask what we need (and what we don’t need) when our anxiety is flaring up. These two simple questions can help:


  • What helps me when I am anxious?

  • What does not help me when I am anxious?

For myself, what I need when I am anxious is to tell a loved one that I am feeling anxious. I need them to just listen. I do not need them to try to “solve” my anxiety or offer me solutions. I do not need simplistic statements reminding me to “Think positive.” I feel great relief in the simple act of speaking how I am feeling. Often, I experience a sense of calming almost instantly. This is not to say that my anxiety vanishes on the spot but, rather, that I feel I no longer need to carry it all by myself. This is my personal experience with what helps me during anxious moments. Yours may be different, but knowing what helps you can allow you to find the right type of support when you are feeling anxious. You can even tell a loved one that you don’t need solutions right now—that you just need to be heard. The point is that once you know what helps, you can actively attain the right kind of support for you.


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In our effort to be understanding of anxiety relief as unique to each individual and their experience, here are some reminders for supporting ourselves and others when anxiety is interfering with our lives:


  • Don’t assume that there is a “right” thing to say.

  • Ask what would help right now and what would not help.

  • Remember that, unlike a physical injury, anxiety does not have a single or broadly applicable “prescription” or intervention.

  • Remember that each individual’s experience with anxiety is unique and, therefore, so is what they need to feel comforted.



Phil Lane, MSW, LCSW, - Website -


References


Any anxiety disorder. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).



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