Why Asking ‘Why?’ Can Be Unhelpful When Managing Anxiety

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Why Asking ‘Why?’ Can Be Unhelpful When Managing Anxiety

We learn to ask "why?" when we’re very young. But when managing anxiety and stress in adulthood, asking "why?" can be a harmful question.

Humans are curious and we want to make sense of the life around us. Getting information is critical to early brain development.

But as adults, our "why?" thinking sometimes causes more anxiety and confusion, because we actually expect our thinking minds to solve the discomfort in our bodies.

It's curious that even though thinking "why?" is rarely successful to help you feel less stressed, adults consistently try to make it work.

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In fact, not only does asking "why?" not work to calm your anxiety and give you clarity — when you feel anxious, this practice creates negative stories and beliefs about yourself and others.

How have we gotten so stuck in an ineffective pattern?

It comes from a genuinely important developmental stage.

My granddaughter has entered the two-year-old "why?" stage. She will occasionally go on a "why?" tangent, following it into more and more questions.

Here’s an example of a recent conversation...

Lucie: "Grandma, why can’t you come to my house?"

Me: "Because there are germs and people are sick. We need to wait until its safe for everyone."

Lucie: "Why?"

Me: "Because we all want to stay well."

Lucie: "Why?"

Me: "Because we like to be healthy."

Lucie: "Why?"

Me: "We love each other and want to take care of each other."

Lucie: "Why?"

Me: "Healthy is a good thing."

Lucie: "Why?"

Me: (Smiling) "So… What did you have for dinner today?"

Asking "why?" can become a habit or even a game for a quick-witted toddler.

It is, as child psychologist Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D. explains, an important developmental task that helps a toddler understand the world around them.

The practice eventually increases security and confidence. It makes sense, right? I can ask and, eventually, I can know about the world.

As adults, when we feel insecure and lack confidence, our minds often wander back to those early "why?" questions as a means of calming and knowing.

In my clinical experience, "why?" used as a tool to understand anxiety typically creates more frustration, less confidence, and a neverending loop of self-criticism.

Here’s how this sounds:

Client: "I don’t know why I feel so anxious. I’m generally really happy."

Me: "Well, let’s check in with your body to see what’s going on."

Client: "I just feel like I have some kind of problem. I tell myself that I’m going to ruin my life if I don’t stop it."

Me: "Yes. How does it feel inside when that happens to you?"

Client: "Like I’m blowing it."

Me: "Yes. That’s what you’re thinking. And that makes sense. What is the sensation that you’re having in your body?"

Client: "Oh, I don’t really know."

But here’s the thing: When you're feeling anxious, your brain doesn’t know why, either.

Anxiety is an activation of your nervous system based upon receiving a cue of danger. In other words, it’s a body feeling.

When you ask "why?" without first acknowledging the feeling of your body's nervous system, you can get easily trapped in an anxiety loop that has no end, much like my granddaughter’s questions.

And while her questions will eventually provide her curious mind with a sense of security and understanding in the world, your question — fueled by your anxious nervous system — will eventually lead you to ideas based upon fight, flight, or freeze.

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This thinking creates stories like: "Why am I so anxious? I'm anxious because I'm alone and broken. I'm anxious because what's happening in front of me is dangerous or bad for me (even if it isn't). I'm anxious because my life (that person, my upbringing, the world, etc.) is terrible."

This phenomenon impacts important parts of your life.

For example, focusing only on thoughts without addressing your physical feeling result in confused communications, inhibited performance, inauthentic relationships, racism and bigotry, shame and hiding, financial incompetence, and more.

That’s why so many experts who work to improve communication, heal racism, encourage human development, and promote financial success like Resmaa Manakem, Lynne Twist, Shefali Tsabary, and many others are clear that without some connection to deep physical response (the body’s wisdom), there's no improvement in these foundational parts of life.

So what can you do to help yourself today?

Begin with "Hmmm…"

The next time your mind jumps to reason why you're feeling anxious, negative, frustrated, and fearful, simply notice the sensation with a "Hmmm..." as you might if you noticed a scratch on your arm, a small bruise or a single raindrop on your scalp.

"Hmmm..." evokes curiosity about the feeling, rather than jumping in to make meaning.

When you allow your attention to move to your body — where you feel this, how it feels to you, how you feel toward what you’re feeling — your natural curiosity helps you to connect back to your body and begins to gather accurate information occurring inside you.

This information may be connected to an old memory, a current expression of energy, a legacy burden, or a cue of danger.

Allow yourself to stay unbiased and curious about what your body is experiencing before you make up any stories or meaning. A simple "Hmmm..." is a great place to start.

RELATED: The One Mindfulness Technique That Eliminates Anxiety —​ Without Medication!

Ingrid Helander is a marriage and family therapist. For more information on her services, visit her website and sign up for her newsletter.