In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” – Bertrand Russell
You know more about anxiety than 99.9% of the population. Yet, here you are.
The question is why? Why isn’t all your fancy-pants information helping you?
Well it’s not because you’re dumb. I was in your shoes for over 10 years and I consider myself relatively smart.
I was good at filling my head with facts but that’s about it. I had a really hard time moving past this phase.
But you know what? So do a lot of other people. For example, I’d say that most people that I work with struggle with this problem.
The reason this happens isn’t a mystery though. It’s due to something called the backfire effect.
People that work in the mental health field call it confirmation bias, but I’m sticking with backfire effect because it sounds cooler.
Simply put, it means that people tend to favor information that supports their beliefs; especially in the face of contradictory evidence.
In fact, beliefs not only stay the same when challenged, they tend to get even stronger.
For example, say that you started having problems with your balance. Chances are you’d jump on the web and search “balance problems” and come back with a thousand hits.
Next, you’d run into several other related symptoms and before you know it you’d start building a rock solid case in favor of MS or some other disease.
When you experience those same symptoms in the future you’d selectively recall biased information (usually all bad) that supported your twisted views about anxiety.
But hang on, it gets worse.
You then misinterpret all incoming information with “I’m already sick” lenses on, which increases anxiety and reinforces the belief that your specific symptoms are related to a real illness rather than stress.
In short, the backfire effect creates biased searches for information, biased interpretations of that information and creates biased memories.
So when you do come across “good information” you disregard it because it doesn’t line up with your beliefs about anxiety.
Basically, you double down.
The crazy thing is that even if you know that you’re doing this, it won’t stop it from happening. It’s a paradox.
Eventually, I stopped falling victim to this backfire business but it wasn’t easy.
Why this happens
One of the reasons people get stuck on bad information is because they favor “early information” and give it more importance than information gathered later.
So if someone told you that your neighbor was a real weirdo you’d develop an ugly (biased) picture in your head about that person.
A picture that would probably be hard to shake even after you met them.
Biased interpretation offers an explanation for this effect: seeing the initial evidence, people form a working hypothesis that affects how they interpret the rest of the information.” Raymond S. Nickerson
Now, you would still form your own ideas about your neighbor, but he would have to work a little harder to prove that he isn’t weird.
The backfire effect is also strengthened by negative moods like anxiety.
So, the more anxious you are, the harder it is to challenge your tainted beliefs about anxiety.
How do you stop this from happening?
1. Stay Curious. When people encounter information that supports their suspicions, they become certain about things they don’t truly understand.
Staying curious about what’s going on leaves the door to new, probably more helpful information, wide open.
2. Present a counterargument. What would happen if you had to put anxiety on the stand and cross examine it?
I bet nothing but good things. I encourage you to write out a counterargument against your anxiety.
Use all the counter evidence you can find and write a narrative designed to persuade others that your anxiety is harmless.
3. Suspend judgment. Stay neutral and open whenever you investigate whether or not something is harmful to you.
4. Accept the gray areas. One of the biggest reasons why people stay stuck in anxiety is because they are desperately seeking certainty where there is none.
Instead, learn how to tolerate ambiguity. This is a powerful tool.
In this week’s episode of The Anxiety Guru Show I discuss how you can increase your tolerance of the unknown and how to use this skill to decrease anxiety. Check it out and comment below.