I have a business and home address that I have to write or say all the time. Like you, I have them completely memorized and they are available to my memory without hesitation. Once you learn something it can be pretty hard to forget.
Some Things You Don’t Forget
Anxiety is like that. Whatever you are worrying about you effectively memorize. Because your thoughts are charged with fear, they are even more memorable. Here is the bad news. You cannot unlearn that. Here is the good news. You can learn something new that can change how you react and even feel.
Except When You Get Old
I know that some of you probably remember every address and every phone number. I don’t, at least not without a LOT of hints. So please humor me while I use my experience to explain something important about anxiety. I can remember my last address quite easily however. Hurray for the old guy.
Not Forgetting, Learning Something New
So think about the process that happens when you move. When you have to write your new address the thing that comes to mind is your previous address. You have to stop and think about your new address. The old one comes immediately to mind. Gradually with practice, the new address is immediately available to memory and you have to stop and think to remember the old address. You don’t actually unlearn the old address or really even replace it with the new one. You just learn the new one and understand it is relevant and the other is not. The meaning of the addresses has changed. Now if you are me, you can actually forget some of the very old addresses. I suppose they are still in there (there being my brain) and could be “renewed” if something prompted the memory. However, they almost never come to mind.
How is this relevant to anxiety? As an example, let’s say that you had some panic attacks at school. School has become associated with a possible panic attack and is “learned” as a potential threat. With successful treatment you may no longer panic at school (better yet, not care if you do or not) but you do NOT forget that school is a potential panic generator. What you have learned instead is that going to school is safe enough and that you can tolerate whatever anxiety you may experience. The meaning of this part of school has changed. With practice of going to school and facing the potential panic, you have learned that you are not in danger and that information is more relevant and accessible than the previous learning. If enough time passes you may hardly ever think of it.
Why Anxiety Suddenly Returns
This is why sometimes, to your great surprise, you may have the old anxiety come back. This can be very upsetting if you don’t understand why. It just means you haven’t ever forgotten it and something triggered the memory. It doesn’t mean your work on overcoming your fear failed. It just means that you need to continue to reinforce the new learning that it is okay to keep doing what you are doing and that you can tolerate feelings of distress. Gradually it will fade again. This is also why learning you can tolerate anxiety and go about life is more important than learning you can go to school without anxiety. You can’t be sure you won’t get anxious again but you can know that you are able to tolerate it and not let it interfere with your life.
Correct Your Expectations as Part of Overcoming
Everyone with severe anxiety wants it to be gone, completely and utterly gone. Who could blame them for that? But if your expectation is that you will never feel or think about the anxiety again you will be really frustrated. You cannot un-learn it. You can overcome it by learning a different way of thinking and responding that is more accurate and effective. Once you change the meaning then anxiety loses its power and fades into your past. Just like my old addresses and phone numbers.
This was very insightful. I’ve recently begun some self therapy for my anxiety and am slowly discovering how many things I’ve “learned” to be anxious about.
Have you looked into Pavlov and his research on classical conditioning? This is what your post brings to mind for me. It’s important to condition ourselves to react differently in situations where anxiety is present, just like it’s important to learn a new address.