David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

The Perfect Catch 22: Anxiety

The Perfect Catch 22: Anxiety

In Joseph Hellers famous book 'Catch 22', the servicemen found themselves in a perfect double bind. In order to escape conscription you had to prove you were mad. The problem was that if you tried to get discharged by showing you are mad the authorities assumed you are sane as you wanted to be discharged. As only mad people would want to fight, they wouldn't want to be discharged and therefore wouldn't try to show they were mad. Therefore the only people trying to get discharged due to madness must be sane and as a result weren't eligible to be discharged and as the mad people wanted to fight and not apply for discharge the military couldn't discharge them either as they weren't trying to prove they were mad!

In many ways anxiety is the perfect double bind or catch 22.

One of the defining symptoms of anxiety is avoidance. People with anxiety tend to have a heightened threat assessment which means they tend to perceive things as being a risk that other people might not. For example, talking at a meeting, going on a date or to a party for example. Many people don't have an emotional problem with these activities. They just do them and reap the benefits. However a person with an anxiety about talking at meetings for example will focus on the risk of embarrassment, saying the wrong thing, being seen to be stupid, or just the fear of general rejection.

This then results in flight or avoidance behaviour.

The issue of avoidance now becomes a three tiered problem. Firstly the individual is likely to go to increasing lengths to not go to meeting where they might have to talk. The effect of this is that firstly, the individual will never realise any of the benefits of talking at meetings such as increased self-worth, confidence, greater credibility, closer social relationships etc. Secondly, once the individual starts to engage in flight behaviour as a coping strategy, the avoidance tends to become the first strategy to use for any difficult emotion. This then very quickly becomes a habit or habituated response, making it much more likely to be the response in future experiences which give rise to anxiety, thus accelerating other anxieties.

The third level of problem avoidance brings about, is that not only will the individual avoid the problematic experience, dating, parties, flying etc. but in many cases they are also likely to avoid any contact with anything associated with the anxiety. This includes facing up to the emotions and dealing with them.

People with anxiety are much less likely to get the anxiety treated than people with other conditions. Herein lies the perfect double bind. Anxiety leads to avoidance. Avoidance makes the anxiety worse. Heightened levels of anxiety leads to greater levels of avoidance, to the exert that the individual won't seek treatment as they don't want to approach the anxiety. This avoidance then leads to even greater levels of avoidance.

Avoidance is a coping strategy, not a treatment.




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Salters-Pedneault et al., (2004) The role of avoidance of emotional material in the anxiety disorders. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 11 (2004), pp. 95–114

Williams et al., (1997) Are emotions frightening? an extension of the fear of fear concept. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35 (1997), pp. 239–248

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