Things I’ve Learned about Anxiety – Anxiety is not your fault

Guilt by Aaron Muszalski

Do you think you are somehow responsible for your anxiety? Do you ever believe that the way you feel is your fault? Do you have the feeling that all this suffering has been caused by some mistake of yours? Do you think you somehow deserve it?
If you replied yes to any of the above questions, trust me: you got it wrong.
This is one of those cases in which it does exist a right or wrong answer. And the correct one here is “No”. You’re not responsible, it’s not your fault, it’s not because of some mistakes you’ve made, you don’t deserve it.
I must admit it’s easier said than done, but this is my job today: relieving you of part of the burden you already have on your shoulders. Deal?

During my second therapy session, I was given a questionnaire to assess my anxiety level. It consisted of several dozens of statements and for each of them I was supposed to choose how much I agreed with it on a scale from 1 to 5.
One in particular stated something like “I think I am responsible for the way I’m feeling” and I clearly remember I agreed with it with all the strength I had.
The line of reasoning that laid behind that certainty was that I had created my anxiety inside my own mind, therefore I had the responsibility to find a way to solve the problem, but since I clearly hadn’t managed to find a way out of that self-constructed hell, I felt entitled to beat myself up, punishing myself for my inability.

I hope you are with me in realizing on how many levels that belief was wrong, as well as unhealthy.

“1. I had created my anxiety inside my own mind”. Wrong.
Anxiety is an automatic response of our body to something that we perceive as an imminent danger. This perception is caused by the way we interpret external inputs and this interpretation is directly correlated with our thoughts, our past experiences, the way we’ve been grown up and so many other elements that are out of our control and therefore out of our responsibility.
Think of what happens when we look at clouds and each of us sees a different shape; well, we interpret external inputs in a very similar way: each of us picks one explanation out of the myriad of possibilities and the one we pick comes from the baggage of memories, experiences and beliefs that we’ve been dragging along for all of our life, from that baggage that makes us who we are.
Sometimes we stumble upon inputs that trigger our danger radar and switch anxiety mode on. That same stimulus may trigger us and leave completely indifferent the guy next door.
That’s why the analysis of what triggers us can be very proficuous, for sure, but that’s already a step #2, while we’re starting from the basics here. So, the most important place to start is to understand that you are not the one who created your anxiety, therefore you are not guilty of anything. The way you are reacting to external stimuli is the best way you can react with the knowledge and resources you possess at the moment. You are not supposed to be anything different from what you are.

“2. Therefore I had the responsibility to find a way to solve the problem”. Wrong again.
Since I considered anxiety something I had created, I also felt it was my duty to make it go away. Basically I kept thinking that I must have made some mistakes that opened the door to my anxiety and all the consequent suffering I was going through. I felt as if I were a wall gatekeeper who forgot to shut the doors at night and woke up realizing that the enemy had gotten in and devastated the entire city. I felt it all had happened because of my personal omission. Therefore I kept asking myself where I had gone wrong letting anxiety in, in order to find a way to undo that mistake. But since there wasn’t any mistake, as I can easily see now, I had no chance to undo it.

“3. Since I clearly hadn’t managed to find a way out of that self-constructed hell, I felt entitled to beat myself up, punishing myself for my inability.” Another wrong turn here.
Would you feel compelled to treat your own cavities? Would you think it’s your job to put your leg in a cast if you broke it?
We usually need some other people’s help when it comes to illness and physical discomfort. Anxiety, as well as any other mental discomfort or disease, is no exception. There are people who are trained to do deal with such situations, who are willing to do that and are great at doing that. If you’re struggling with the idea of seeking help, ask yourself what you’d do if you woke up with clear signs of a very bad flu; I’m quite sure you’d call your doctor to ask for help without even thinking about it. Your emotional and psychological well-being doesn’t deserve anything less.
It took me a while to understand it myself; I had to collapse on the floor losing my senses, after months of great suffering, before I acknowledged that I needed help, before I acknowledged that I wanted help. I soon realized how much pain I would have spared myself if I seeked for help before, I soon realized how much help and comfort I was going to get from the stranger sitting in front of me, when I first entered my therapist’s office.
And it was thanks to her that I questioned my guilt for the first time ever. During our third session, she came back with my assessment results and, before even discussing them, she said “One thing impressed me quite a lot while I was going through your questionnaire and that is your feeling responsible for your anxiety”.
Being guilty had just been so obvious for me till that moment, that her genuine surprise towards my firm belief, kind of caught me off guard. That was probably the first of the many insights that therapy gave me. Maybe I had gone too far in taking the blame for my pain, maybe I was taking responsibility for something that wasn’t really my fault. Maybe I could drop some of that burden by admitting that I had nothing to punish myself for.
I wasn’t responsible, it wasn’t my fault, it was not because of any mistake I had made, I didn’t deserve it.
And, believe me, neither do you.


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