How to Deal with Anxiety About Anxiety (Compound Anxiety)?

A reader asks:

Dear Nick, I struggle with anxiety about anxiety. I worry a lot that my anxiety will never go away, I get anxious imagining having anxiety in embarrassing situations (like during meetings at work when I’m required to speak), and I worry that my anxiety is hurting my relationship with my wife. Any suggestions?

The funny thing about anxiety about anxiety—also known as compound anxiety—is that it’s far more common than most people realize. In fact, it’s actually the most common type of anxiety because….

All anxiety is anxiety about anxiety.

Now, that probably sounds a little strange—maybe shocking to some of you—so let me explain what I mean…

All anxiety is anxiety about anxiety

Say you have social anxiety, what does that mean, exactly?

  • Does it mean you’re afraid of other people or social gatherings?
  • No, it means you’re afraid of getting anxious ahead of and during social gatherings and what might happen as a result. You’re not afraid of people or parties, you’re afraid of being anxious with people and at parties.

Or take fear of flying…

  • Does fear of flying mean you’re afraid of airplanes or crashing while flying?
  • No, what it means is you’re afraid of getting anxious on planes and what the result of that might be—having a panic on the plane, for example, and not being able to calm down for hours.

In short…

With any form of chronic anxiety, the core dynamic maintaining it is compound anxiety.

This is why I say that all anxiety is anxiety about anxiety.

Compound anxiety is very common

I mention this because anxiety about anxiety can seem very strange and unique. And if you struggle with it, it’s easy then to feel very alone or isolated.

But you should know that you’re far from alone because, under the hood, being afraid of feeling anxious is exactly what everyone else with chronic anxiety struggles with too.

For a long time, because psychology was not a very mature science—I’m not sure it is yet, but that’s a topic for another article—we didn’t know what caused a lot of the problems people struggled with. So we got into the habit of defining emotional struggles based on how they looked superficially…

  • We call it social anxiety, because those people get anxious in social situations.
  • We call it fear of flying because those people get anxious in airplanes.

But a more sophisticated way of thinking about difficulties like anxiety is to define them by their underlying mechanism or cause.

That’s why I say all forms of chronic anxiety are really anxiety about anxiety.

Because if you have persistent anxiety, the fundamental cause is not that you’re irrationally afraid of something out there in the world; the cause is your fear of getting more anxious—which is understandable because anxiety feels awful.

But if all chronic anxiety is really anxiety about anxiety, then why do some of us struggle so much with this?

Avoidance is the root of all anxiety problems

What causes anxiety about anxiety?

In a word… Avoidance

If you habitually avoid or try to get rid of something (including anxiety), your brain, not unreasonably, starts to learn that that thing is a threat or danger. Which means, the more you try to get rid of or escape your anxiety, the worse it gets.

Something I used to say to my own anxiety clients was:

The more you treat your anxiety like an enemy, the more like an enemy your anxiety will start to feel.

The way out of this vicious cycle of increasingly compounding anxiety is to do the opposite of avoidance, which in psychological terms is something called approach.

To approach your anxiety means that instead of treating it like an enemy to be feared or eliminated, you treat it like a friend—someone you listen to and tolerate.

Yeah, yeah… That sounds nice but what does that actually mean, treating your anxiety like a friend?

Building a better relationship with anxiety

It means that whenever anxiety shows up, try to resist your impulse to avoid it or get rid of it by immediately distracting yourself or using a coping mechanism.

And instead, try this…

It’s a little 4-step framework I teach my students that will help you manage anxiety in the moment. It’s called The C.A.L.M Method

  1. Catch your breath. Take one deep breath to anchor yourself in the present and get out of your head and expand your awareness.
  2. Acknowledge your anxiety. Using plain, simple language, describe what you’re feeling: I feel anxious. I’m nervous. I’m feeling panicky. This step takes advantage of the name it to tame it principle.
  3. Love it, even if you don’t like it. This is all about validating your anxiety and reminding yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad—or that you’re bad for feeling it. Just like a friend, you can love them even if you don’t happen to like them at the moment.
  4. Meaningful action. Now that you’ve acknowledged and validated your anxiety, no need to dwell on it anymore. Refocus your attention on something meaningful and get on with your life.

At the end of the day,

If you want to feel less anxious, you must stop running away from it and start building a better relationship with it.

And the four steps I just outlined are a great way to practice that.

It won’t be easy—and it will take some time and patience—but you can absolutely free yourself from anxiety about anxiety if you’re willing to work at it.

Good luck!

Learn More About Overcoming Anxiety