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More PsychNotes: Anxiety

April 24, 2017       

Developing Tolerance of Anxiety
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

I can't always control my anxiety, but I can learn to tolerate it.

For many people anxiety feels intolerable. The unpleasant symptoms of agitation seem like they will never go away. It feels out-of-control and scary. One of the common statements they make is "I can't stand this!"

People without an anxiety disorder often don't understand the level of intensity and how awful it can feel. They equate panic with being the same as a high level of normal anxiety. As a result, their attempts to comfort fall short and may even seem patronizing: "It'll be okay. You can get through this. You just need to calm down."

However, they aren't entirely wrong because the inability to tolerate the anxiety makes the anxiety worse. What they are wrong about, though, is believing the anxiety is under the individual's control and due to an inability to handle normal anxiety.

Instead, the simplest way to describe it is that people who have anxiety disorders have an overactive "flight or fight" response that is due to a PHYSICAL dysregulation in their system.

Yet, the belief that they can't tolerate the anxiety does impact them by leading to increased anxiety. So although a person with anxiety may not be able to control this physical dysregulation, what they can do is to learn to control the additional layers of anxiety created by the intolerance beliefs. This is similar to a person with chronic pain who may not be able to control the initial source of pain but can learn to control the added pain created by the tension due to their beliefs of not being able to stand it.

So whether we are talking about pain or anxiety, learning to tolerate the physical sensations can help in reducing the symptoms. The problem, however, is that a person with an anxiety disorder needs to LEARN how to tolerate the anxiety. Simply being told to tolerate it isn't enough. The audio Learning to Tolerate Anxiety can help in this process.

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