Do we always need to know the why?

Something that has been consistently coming up in my work more and more is a desire (an understandable one) to understand fully “why do I feel like this“. Some clients will not have a clear triggering event or events that helps them to make sense of why they feel anxious about something that never really made them feel anxious before.

As you might imagine this can feel very frustrating when something like anxiety grabs a hold of you and starts to get in the way of you feeling like you can do every day things. This sense of frustration is doubled when there is no clear trigger or obvious activating event to help you understand why it has happened. I can only imagine when you go to a psychologist with the expectation that they will somehow unlock the hidden reason behind your anxiety and they don’t have a clear A led to B explanation then your sense of frustration could be increased even more!

Theoretically we could spend session after session exploring in depth the multitude of underlying reasons why someone might be feeling anxious or very sad. Meaning and understanding is helpful and validating, but in itself doesn’t result in practical changes in the person’s life in itself.

I want you to consider the following situation, you’re on a boat, out to sea and you can’t swim. Something happens, maybe you trip over an oar, maybe someone pushes you overboard or you’ve had one two many in a celebration and lose your balance.

Whatever the cause the result is you’ve ended up in the water and you can’t swim. In that moment, in the water, desperate to keep afloat and not sink, how many of you would think that you would spend time wondering and analysing “hmm how was it that I came to end up in the water?

I imagine for most if not all of us our immediate priority is not how did I end up in the water but what do I need to do to stay afloat, how do I not sink, how do I get back in the boat, how do I survive and not drown?

Is it really necessary or helpful in this situation, while maybe understandably panicking about our survival, to know how we ended up here? In some scenarios I argue that initially anyway it may be more helpful to focus on what do I do now / instead and maybe through action we might (or might not) shed light on the origins of our difficulties.

If we’ve avoided going to school or work or social events because we’ve been too anxious to go we can make a plan of how to cope with these scenarios in a graded and manageable fashion. Being behaviourally active, the opposite of avoidance, gives us the potential to have experiences that should challenge our anxiety influenced catastrophic predictions of doom. Only through action can we reliably get ourselves into a place where we can realistically evaluate whether a certain situation ultimately was a bad as our anxiety predicted it would be. We can achieve this without knowing the original why.

For me there is no more satisfying thing to hear from someone who has struggled with anxiety than:

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought”

This is the important part in the management of anxiety, you don’t need to trust my word for it because you’ve been through it directly yourself and crucially it will start to undermine the influence of anxiety on your predictions. We never get to have the thought that it wasn’t as bad as I predicted without action without doing.

When anxiety is a problem all it wants you to do is Avoid Avoid Avoid. When you avoid you believe that the situation (public speaking, a party, a work presentation etc) would have turned out to be an absolute disaster and aren’t you blessed that you didn’t go and protected yourself from public humiliation. When you get to the point that you reflect an realise it wasn’t as bad as anxiety predicted it would be then it starts a process of undermining your faith in how good is anxiety about predicting the future. This is the start of you building confidence in managing your anxiety.

We also need to be realistic about what is achievable and what is good enough when we find ourselves in a situation that we didn’t want to be in, like falling into the sea when we can’t swim. We might hope that when in trouble we respond like an Olympic swimmer and get ourselves out of trouble in style but how many of us could do that?



The reality is that when we feel overwhelmed, when we feel like we’re in danger, when we are panicking and fearing the worst, the doggie paddle will keep us afloat, it won’t look pretty or impressive, but it’s good enough in the moment and it won’t matter how or why we fell in the water in the first place.

Maybe at times it’s ok for the why to wait?

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