Why It Feels Like Every Anti-Anxiety Treatment Makes Your Anxiety Worse

A psychologist explains why you feel like nothing helps, and what to do next.

Woman having anxiety about anxiety VORONA | Canva

If it feels like you're getting nowhere with typical anxiety treatment, your issue might be something a little bit different. No matter what you call it, acute anxiety, secondary anxiety, meta-anxiety, or meta-worry, these terms describe 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. It plays a powerful role in escalating anxiety, but it needs a slightly different response.


If treatment makes your anxiety feel worse, you might have secondary anxiety  

Secondary anxiety described

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 the 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.

RELATED: The 3 Tiny Differences Between Healthy And Unhealthy Anxiety

Influencers 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.

Anxiety that turns you against yourself 

Like an immune disorder where your body turns on itself, escalated anxiety is characterized by the same, an internal struggle that may start 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 its adaptive message and access its productive problem-solving energy.


RELATED: 5 Meaningful Signs of Anxiety That Most People Miss

Four key facts you must know to treat secondary anxiety 

1. Secondary anxiety is serious 

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 cope with it.

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

She wants a different approach to anxiety PeopleImages.com - Yuri A via Shutterstock


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.

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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-ifs 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. Understanding secondary anxiety can reduce anxiety overall 

Our best efforts to avoid 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 to 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.

Relaxed, she has found a different approach to anxiety fizkes via Shutterstock


How to handle secondary anxiety

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.

RELATED: 17 Real-Life Techniques For Dealing With Anxiety Right Now (That Actually Help!)


Dr. Alicia Clark has been a practicing psychologist for over 25 years and has been named one of Washington’s Top Doctors by Washingtonian Magazine. She is the author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You In Life, Love, and All That You Do.