Anxiety about anxiety: on secondary anxiety

Secondary anxiety can be defined as getting anxious about being anxious. In this article, I wish to describe briefly why secondary anxiety often has a pernicious effect, and then to offer a few ways that secondary anxiety can be tackled.

Essentially, secondary anxiety has a detrimental effect, because it typically exacerbates the original anxiety. Indeed, feeling anxious is uncomfortable enough on its own, but when someone gets anxious about being anxious, then the anxiety can escalate, sometimes even into a full-blown panic attack. Consequently, getting anxious about being anxious not only makes your anxiety worse, but it also prevents you from understanding the root cause of the original anxiety.

Here are a couple of ways to mitigate secondary anxiety developing (or at least it enduring):

Secondary anxiety
usually emerges when the person assumes that their original anxiety is itself something dangerous, and thus a threat of some indefinite kind. A key way of avoiding secondary anxiety is to reinterpret the original anxiety as an unpleasant feeling, but not a danger by any means. Proof that anxiety itself is not dangerous is that when someone has a panic attack, they are not harmed in any long-term way. If the most flagrant form of anxiety proves not dangerous, it is unlikely that its lesser forms are dangerous. 

So when you are feeling anxious, try your best to frame it more in terms of discomfort rather than threat. If you do this, not only will you be less likely to get anxious about being anxious, but also the original anxiety will tend to dissipate quicker.

Paradoxical interventions are not always your first port of call when dealing with (secondary) anxiety, but many people have found them effective (sometimes when nothing else has apparently worked). To deal with your (secondary) anxiety in a paradoxical fashion, do the following: when you feel anxious, try your hardest to make the anxiety worse.

Perhaps it is not a challenge to see why this is called a paradoxical prescription: when we feel anxious, our natural instinct seems to be to try and get 'rid' of the anxiety. Of course, this futile 'ridding' process tends to make us more anxious, as we find, much to our alarm, that our anxious feelings are still there, and that's when secondary anxiety can emerge.

The paradoxical technique is one answer to this, as trying to prolong and 'extend' the anxiety means that the original anxiety is permitted to follow its mortal trajectory through time; it can escalate and then ebb away according to its natural rhythm. 

If you find your anxiety issues proves too difficult to tackle on your own, please consult a (pluralistic) counsellor who can not only give you some support and encouragement, but also provide you with a number of techniques that you can try to help alleviate your anxiety.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox-Choice Counselling at Harley Street

I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilise a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox-Choice Counselling at Harley Street

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