How To Know If Your Anxious Thoughts & Worry Are A Result Of SECONDARY Anxiety (Not Regular Anxiety)

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secondary anxiety

A powerful accelerant of acute anxiety, secondary anxiety, meta-anxiety, and meta-worry are all ways of describing the same thing: anxiety about anxiety. Put another way, this is the anxiety we feel when we think about, and dread, our anxiety symptoms.

It isn’t our primary anxiety or worry — it’s the anxiety that evolves secondary to it. And it plays a powerful role in escalating anxiety.

The term "secondary" generally describes a syndrome that emerged as a result of another condition. Secondary depression in severe anxiety disorders, for example, refers to the depression that can occur as a result of severe anxiety.

Secondary anxiety is sometimes referred to as the anxiety caused by a medical condition, as with endocrine disease, or the anxiety that develops after an onset of another disorder, as with substance abuse. The anxiety isn’t the primary issue, it’s secondary. But it can complicate the primary issue, and worsen the experience of it significantly.

When describing anxiety about an emotional experience, consensus about what to call the phenomena is less clear. 

Bloggers have called anxiety about anxiety meta-anxiety, some psychologists have called it anxiety sensitivity, while researchers have used the term meta-worry. Indeed, studies that have investigated the impact of meta-worry have continued to show its central impact on the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders.

Whether we call it secondary anxiety, meta-anxiety, or meta-worry, fearing our anxiety is never helpful, and it generally deteriorates our experience. It’s hard enough to feel anxious about something we care about; it’s even worse to feel afraid of how we’re feeling, especially when that very fear drives anxiety to, often, debilitating levels.

Like an immune disorder where your body turns on itself, escalated anxiety is characterized by the same: an internal struggle that may start out as a normal process but becomes abnormal when resisted and distorted.

When you fear your body’s reaction and do everything you can to resist it, you turn on yourself and shut down your natural coping process.

Anxiety about anxiety adds to the original anxiety, and thus escalates the discomfort, but this isn’t the worst part. The most destructive part of secondary anxiety is that in resisting and fearing anxiety, you obscure your innate capacity to hear it’s adaptive message, and access its productive problem-solving energy.  

Here are 4 things you need to know about secondary anxiety, so you can take back control:

1. Secondary anxiety is self-defeating and can be dangerous.

Rooted in a belief that we can’t handle how we are feeling, believing our anxiety is dangerous just might be the most damaging approach we can take to coping with it.

Recent large-scale research has shown that our beliefs about stress can be more damaging than stress itself.

2. Secondary anxiety amplifies emotions.

Resistance escalates conflict whereas acceptance and curiosity diminish it. When we worry that we can’t handle something, we add fuel to our emotions and escalate them.

Resistance doesn’t quiet the negative emotions; quite the opposite. When we worry about feeling sad, we feel sadder. When we worry about feeling frustrated, we generally feel more frustrated. When we worry about feeling anxiety, we feel more anxious.

A cornerstone of panic and temper outbursts, we can’t "freak out" if we don’t resist and worry about our experience.

3. Secondary anxiety is based on a false belief that we can’t handle our anxiety.

We may not want to, but we can always handle our emotions. Anxiety lives in the future and is constructed with ‘what-if’s and possibilities, whereas confidence lives in the past, constructed by our realities.

If you doubt your ability to face your anxiety, look behind you to see that you have tolerated your emotions, even if it wasn’t graceful, and can again.

4. Secondary anxiety erodes self-confidence, limits risk-taking, and stunts emotional growth. 

Our best efforts of avoiding the things we most fear often create more anxiety than facing our fears head on. And worse, we lose the opportunities to face challenges and take risks that build our confidence, create resilience, and grow emotional capacity.

No one sets out do this deliberately, or sabotage themselves with needless worry. Secondary anxiety is a normal reaction to discomfort and situations that scare us. Still, our fear of our experience only worsens it. It doesn’t help.

Dialing down secondary anxiety — a powerful anxiety escalator — can help limit the severity of your symptoms and thus allow you a better understanding of what your primary anxiety is trying to convey.

The truth is, no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient, and exhausting your anxiety might be, you can handle it. You have before, and you will again. 

Believing otherwise is simply a mental trap aimed at avoidance that fails every time. Knowing you can handle your anxiety is the key to taking back control. Taking control of how we think about anxiety provides the ballast we need to weather the storm of anxiety.

We are strongest and most successful in harnessing our emotions — including anxiety — when we face them head on.

Looking for a bit more help managing your anxiety? Check out Dr. Clark's new book, Hack Your Anxiety, chock full of tried and true tips from the latest science, and years in the trenches.

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This article was originally published at Dr. Alicia Clark's blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.