Dr. Sally Winston knows what she’s talking about. In the field of anxiety disorders and the treatment of anxiety disorders, you will not find anyone with more street cred than Dr. Winston. Today I had the privilege of spending 25 minutes chatting with her about recovery, the obsessive need for certainty and comfort that drives many disorders, and why reassurance and soothing is decidedly NOT the way.
Bottom line. Soothing and reassuring anxiety, panic, and irrational fear does not work. It may provide temporary relief or comfort, but in the end, the way out of your anxiety disorder is not soothing yourself, comforting yourself, or trying to “work around” anxiety, panic, uncertainty and discomfort.
The underlying issues in many anxiety disorders, according to Dr. Winston, is the intolerance of uncertainty and the prominence of doubt. The best way to address this is not to try to change the way you are thinking or feeling, but to change your relationship with what you think and how you feel. The path out of your disorder is to face what you fear, but to do so in a way that allows you to form a new relationship with anxiety, panic, fear and discomfort. Learning a new way to navigate through these things teaches us that they are not dangerous and that we are capable of handling them.
This is not a solution laden with “techniques”. There are certainly techniques, but these are relatively simple. The real key here is making a profound shift in the way you approach your symptoms and thoughts. The solution lies not in attaining the feeling of safety, certainty and reassurance you so desperately seek, but in abandoning that quest. This involves taking action to show yourself that you ARE capable of handling fear, discomfort and not knowing. When we learn that we can tolerate and navigate these things – even though we are afraid that we can not – then what has stalked us and terrified us for so long begins to lessen and fade over time.
The Worried Mind, False Comfort, and The Wise Mind
When Dr. Winston and her writing partner Dr. Seif speak about changing your relationship to thoughts, symptoms, and the uncertainty that lies underneath it all, they speak of three primary concepts that represent the different thinking processes at play:
The Worried Mind – These are your fears. The things you are trying to banish. The irrational thoughts that convince you that something is horribly wrong or will go horribly wrong in some way (physically, mentally, emotionaly, socially, etc.).
In the context of seeking help in the online mental health community, YOU are the Worried Mind.
False Comfort – This is the process that tries to soothe those fears. It brings reassurance. It says nice things to you. It tries to “prove” your fears wrong with words and logic and rationality. False comfort means well, but it never works on the long term.
In the context of online mental health and self help circles, virtually the entire Internet is False Comfort. The “five things to do when you panic” posts. The supplements. The herbs. The oils. The weighted blankets. The “positive mindset crowd”. The gratitude journals. The Internet thinks it is helping by trying to make you feel better and teaching you how to “change what you think”.
The Wise Mind – This is the objective voice and thought process that recognizes the interplay between Worried Mind and False Comfort. The Wise Mind knows that your fears and catastrophic thoughts are irrational. It also knows that the efforts of False Comfort are futile and making things worse. The Wise Mind will show you the way out of your disorder, but the things it will tell you to do may bother you because they are difficult and scary.
In the context of seeking help online, voices like Dr. Winston, helpers that echo the messages you hear me repeating, and other cognitive-behaviorally based accounts are the Wise Mind.
Productive vs. Un-Productive Reassurance
Yes, there is such a thing as productive reassurance. Productive reassurance has an ending. It ends with feeling “sure enough”, with an action plan in hand. Productive reassurance is instructive and helpful.
Un-Productive Reassurance never ends. It contains no real action plan. It attempts to soothe and obtain 100 percent certainty that you will always be safe and that the bad things you fear will never happen. There is NEVER enough un-productive reassurance. No matter how much of this you seek, you will always go back for more.
Making the shift away from soothing, seeking certainty, and un-productive reassurance is difficult. It is counter intuitive. It involves intentionally feeling unsafe and vulnerable. This is not a thing that people tend to want to do, but when done properly, this shift changes everything.
About Dr. Sally Winston
Dr. Sally Winston is a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland. She is nationally recognized for her expertise in the treatment of anxiety disorders. You can find her online at https://anxietyandstress.com.
About “Needing To Know For Sure”
The book we discussed in this episode is “Needing To Know For Sure”, but Dr. Winston and Dr. Martin Seif. The book is available from Amazon using this link. If you purchase the book using this link, I will earn a small commission, but ALL money earned through Amazon affiliate links will be donated directly to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
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Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)
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