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  5. 5 signs white-knuckling is making your anxiety worse and 3 ways to regain control, according to a therapist

5 signs white-knuckling is making your anxiety worse and 3 ways to regain control, according to a therapist

Kim Schewitz   

5 signs white-knuckling is making your anxiety worse and 3 ways to regain control, according to a therapist
  • 'White-knuckling' is a common reaction to anxiety, which can make it worse, a therapist said.
  • You might be white-knuckling if you can't wait to leave an everyday situation.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US, affecting almost one in five Americans each year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Joshua Fletcher, known as AnxietyJosh online, a UK-based psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety disorders and author of the upcoming book "And How Does That Make You Feel?," described them to Business Insider as "a fear of fear" and said that certain behaviors known as "white-knuckling," can make anxiety worse. But a simple change in mindset can help a lot, he said.

White-knuckling can make anxiety worse

White-knuckling is "an old phrase to describe tension when we're holding onto something," Fletcher said. "If you're a nervous passenger in the car, you may 'white-knuckle' and grab onto the side or hold the seat." Think of the phrase "white-knuckle-ride."

There is nothing wrong with gritting your teeth through genuinely stressful or unpleasant situations such as getting a flu shot. But this becomes white-knuckling in a psychological sense when a person is counting down the time until they can leave what should be an unthreatening situation, as opposed to immersing themselves in it and focusing their attention on it, he said.

If you're dreading doing things that you know you want or need to do on a regular basis, such as attending social events or giving presentations, and find that even though you continue to do them it feels arduous and anxiety-inducing, you're probably white-knuckling, he said.

5 signs of white knuckling:

  • Constantly checking the clock

  • Counting down how much time you have left

  • Placing yourself near the door

  • Only doing something if you have a "safe person" or object with you

  • Using alcohol to get through certain social events

"When we're white-knuckling, we're appeasing the flight side of our fight or flight response," he said, referring to the body's automatic stress response. So every time we count down until we can leave a situation, we are almost confirming to our brain that there is a threat and we should flee, he said.

The presence of safe objects or people also means that we don't give ourselves the credit for tolerating situations that are difficult for us, he said, which means we keep white-knuckling.

Reinforcing the idea that the situation is scary to the brain can prevent people from recovering from anxiety disorders and is the reason why these activities continue to feel fear-inducing, despite the fact that we keep repetitively doing them, he said.

Fletcher used to white-knuckle himself, but as a former anxiety sufferer, he knows that it is possible to overcome the condition and certain life-restricting behaviors.

Three steps to reclaiming control over your anxiety

The first step to overcoming white-knuckling is to identify where the problem is, Fletcher said. This could be leaving the house or using public transport.

Once you've identified the area where you are struggling, you can work to develop a new way of responding to it. Ideally, when the anxious feelings arise, you want to "go loose" and "do nothing," Fletcher said, "it's the way out."

"Just continue doing what you were doing. When you act out of fear, you reinforce the fear wiring in your brain," he said. Over time, you can rewire your brain to not react to the anxiety, he said, which will help it to pass more quickly.

This is known as exposure therapy, which is a common anxiety treatment where a person experiences rationally safe things that their threat response, the amygdala in the brain, tells them is dangerous.

"It's about tolerating the symptoms of that threat response without trying to respond to it with compulsions or safety behaviors such as white-knuckling," Fletcher said.

But all exposure therapy counts so if you do catch yourself white-knuckling that's OK. It's best to be very compassionate towards yourself and focus on what's going on around you, he said.

As long it's been cleared by a medical professional, any kind of exposure is safe, he said.

Finally, Fletcher suggested reading up on the psychology behind the body's threat response so that you can understand what's happening when you feel anxious. He found this to be empowering during his own recovery.

If you want more intensive help, which usually makes the process quicker, he said, find a cognitive behavioral therapist or a therapist trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, who can help you work through specific difficulties.