Working with anxiety - the opposite is key to moving forward

In this article I would like to explore why it is vital to work with your behavioural response to your anxious feelings in a way that is the opposite to what your natural instinct to protect yourself is telling you to do.


An understanding of the 'why' is important, and being able to apply this to your own situation is vital in order to begin to feel longer term symptom relief from anxious feelings in any form. Natural instinct tells us to avoid a feeling of fear at any cost and so in general we respond to our fear in such a way to help the immediate short term fear go down. This seems to help in the short term, but quickly becomes a habit and will inevitably lead the longer term fear to go up, leaving us stuck in the cycle.

Working in the opposite way is key for a number of reasons such as:

  • You cannot recover from anxious and panicky feelings while you don't understand how it is working together with your mind and body to keep you stuck, but you can start to work with the way in which you are responding to your feelings.
  • It is difficult to work with feelings of anxiety while you are going "with" your instincts.
  • It is difficult to work with feelings of anxiety while you are avoiding things, this includes avoiding yourself and your own emotions.

A real understanding of the above statements are very true, firstly because without a good "real" understanding of what is happening to you and why you are acting and feeling as you are, how can you possibly know how to reverse things properly and effectively and protect your wellbeing?

Secondly, when you experience acute feelings of panic and anxiety it can really scare you. You may well recognise quickly that you feel overwhelmed and frightened, however, because this fear comes in usual situations where you rationally know that you should not really be scared, it leads you to believe that there must be something seriously wrong with you.

This begins a process of self monitoring for the 'dangerous feeling' and worry and anticipation about the next possible time you may feel this feeling. A worry about what the future may hold may be difficult to ignore and the anticipation this brings will cause you to react to the anxiety that you are feeling in a negative way. You may believe that this really is a dangerous feeling that could cause harm, or cause you to suffer a loss of control or embarrassment when with others. It is this very response and reaction to your feelings that turns a panic attack into an anxiety disorder.

Focusing on these episodes of difficult feelings and preoccupation with future attacks causes you to limit your daily life and to alter your behaviour while believing that, if you do this you will be ready to protect yourself from more uncomfortable feelings and sensations. However, what we are trying to protect ourselves from is not in any way dangerous, uncomfortable yes, but not dangerous. If we think about it logically, you are not just avoiding objects, situations or people, you are also avoiding yourself and in doing so not realising that these feelings are ok to feel and that you can handle it!

It's the "going with your body's instincts on how to protect yourself from this" that continues to sink you deeper and deeper into the cycle that will keep you stuck.  Anxiety itself breeds and feeds off avoidance. In fact, anxiety disorders are widely known as "avoidance disorders". Avoiding anxiety and panic symptoms in any form is basically like taking a big can of petrol and pouring it on your own internal fire. Your anxiety needs your avoidance tactics to survive within you. If you stop avoidance it no longer has its fuel and will die.

So when we take all the above into consideration, what I am trying to say is that to recover from the habitual behavioural part of panic and anxiety you must ultimately, in time and with the right support in place, work with this at your own pace while working simultaneously to resolve what is causing this to happen to you at the root of your anxious feelings.

Small steps are key, start small, gain confidence and build up to bigger and better things. Remember, recovery does not feel good at first, this is because you are beginning to approach your fear and you will feel panic when you start to put steps in place to do the opposite and go against your instincts. This is normal and is supposed to happen. Any step you take will begin to change things for the better. To avoid feeling anxious during recovery from feeling anxious means that you would still be avoiding it!

So now all you have to do is begin. Here are some "opposite" examples:

  • If you want to flee - stay (maybe just tell yourself you can leave but just not right now in a couple of minutes).
  • If you are avoiding friends, meetings, appointments - go.
  • If you are avoiding thoughts - let the thoughts come and allow yourself to think them, maybe then giving them a better outcome. Thoughts cannot hurt you or anyone else for that matter because they are just thoughts. Practice the art of detaching and observing them, without judging them to be good or bad.

Slowly begin to place yourself back into situations or with people or near objects or situations that you have been avoiding. Activate the anxiety and then wait until it passes. If this feels too difficult at first, try instead delaying your reaction.
Start to tune into your body, learn how it's working, then do the exact opposite.
You must feel the feelings and thoughts that you don't want to have, in order to get over them. Period.

I really hope this helps you to gain knowledge on how panic works, it's just so important to gain the right knowledge because that way you will lose the fear associated with the anxiety you are suffering from, whichever way this anxiety manifests in you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD13
Written by Michelle Vickers, EMDR Therapy, Clinical Supervision & Professional Training
Bradford, West Yorkshire, BD13

Hello I am Michelle Vickers. I am a Therpist with personal experience of anxiety and panic disorders and reversal of housebound agoraphobia. My passion is to support and empower others to facilitate their own remission of symtoms and to improve their overall wellbeing.
Please see my online resource for further information.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals