There is a cool interactive game designed by Nicky Case called ‘Adventures With Anxiety‘. In the game, you have a human and you have an excitable red dog. The human represents you, the excitable red dog represents your anxiety. In the game, you get to play as your anxiety. You go through different situations such as lunchtime, parties and alone time and as the human’s anxiety you have one goal: protect your human from harm.
As you might expect, the anxiety dog (the character you play as) really wants to help out. It gets you to withdraw from parties, it gets you to freak out about a cheat meal, it screams at you telling you that you are going to die if you drink a sip of alcohol. As you know as a rational human being, these things aren’t helpful at all. In fact, they only create more worry and stress for the human (you). You can’t live your life as you want when you are constantly getting barked at by the anxiety dog. It doesn’t really know the difference between what is real and what is true.
Where this gets interesting though is that if you aren’t careful, the dog can start to think that worrying is magic.
You are worried about being judged at a fancy conference, the dog barks a little bit, you end up not going. You’re safe now.
You want a slice of pizza because you have done well this week, the dog tells you that pizza will literally kill you. You’re safe now.
In these instances, your anxiety dog is starting to work out that worrying is actually helping you. It is saving you from getting embarrassed. It is saving you from dying early. It is saving your pride. It is protecting you in an effective way. Because your anxiety dog is a part of you, you start to subconsciously learn that worrying protects you. You start thinking that worrying is some great formula that rids of you of stresses. You start to think that worrying is magic. This is how worrying tricks you.
In his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman calls this the ‘worry habit’.
“The worry habit is reinforcing in the same sense that superstitions are. Since people worry about many things that have a very low probability of actually occurring — a loved one dying in a plane crash, going bankrupt, and the like —there is, to the primitive limbic brain at least, something magical about it. Like an amulet that wards off some anticipated evil, the worry psychologically gets the credit for preventing the danger it obsesses about.”
The worry psychologically gets the credit for preventing the danger it obsesses about. So, if you spend a lot of your time worrying about being attacked in the street by a stranger and as a result, you don’t leave the house that day, your worry is what takes credit for you not being attacked that day. You realise that it’s nice to not be attacked, so you happily pump some more worry into the body the next day.
It can be difficult to accept at first but it’s important to consciously realise that worrying isn’t magic. It isn’t helping you avoid inevitable problems but rather, creating many more problems for yourself. The longer you let worry take its hold, the longer it will take for you to shake it off and get back to being your normal self.
If you play Adventures With Anxiety until the end, you realise that your anxiety dog is just a battered shelter dog that wants the best for you and that just needs a bit of training. Eventually, the dog realises that flooding you with worry doesn’t actually protect you. Eventually, you realise that fighting the dog doesn’t actually make him go away, it makes him louder.
You realise that teaching an old dog new tricks will take a while. Maybe even years. You also realise that the dog is going to relapse sometimes and slip into its old habits, so you need to have patience.
Ultimately, you realise that you need to do the hard things and let your anxiety dog come along. Let it sit in the backseat but never drive the car.
You need to let your body and your mind know that worrying isn’t magic, it’s poison.