A common frustration for many people who have an anxiety disorder is that well-meaning friends, family, and unfortunately even professionals give the advice of “When you get anxious, you just need to relax.” This might be accompanied by suggestions to engage in deep breathing, meditation, relaxation techniques or even medication.
While these techniques can be useful (especially for Generalized Anxiety Disorder), very often before these can be used, the underlying cognitions need to be addressed. Additionally, for some issues such as OCD, phobias and especially Panic Disorder, relaxation is not only ineffective, but also its use is contraindicated by research.
So why isn’t trying to relax working? For phobias, think of it this way: when you are in the presence of the fear object or situation, your thought is similar to “This situation is dangerous! I have to get out of here”. For panic disorder, the thought may be “These physical sensations are horrible! I may be having a heart attack, or will go crazy. I have to get out of here.” In either of these situations, by telling yourself you are in a scary situation you are activating your fight or flight system, which feels just like a panic attack. This would be akin to a bear entering the room you’re sitting in; your fight or flight will activate, and someone telling you to relax, take deep breaths or even being on medication will not stop your fight or flight from occurring. It may take the edge off for less scary situations, but when you believe you are in a dangerous situation (seeing a snake, having a panic attack), no matter how many Xanaxes you have taken or deep breathing exercises you’ve done won’t stop the fight or flight system.
There is a solution that is effective, but requires courage and work on your part. What to do? Take a look at the previous post about Exposure and Response Prevention.