Many of us have heard the phrase: hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We might use this phrase to prepare ourselves for situations like job interviews, family gatherings, or even important conversations with friends. In these circumstances, we hope for good outcomes but have a backup plan in case things go awry. Some people find the balancing act between hoping for the best and preparing for the worst to be an impossible feat. They may feel that hoping for a good outcome sounds scary or foolish - because ‘the worst’ that may sneak up on them when they least expect it. One population that often struggles with this experience are those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). As a student and researcher, I focused on studying and learning about those with GAD. As a clinician, I strive to help those with anxiety regain control from their disorder.
In order to hope for the best, we need to be open to positive feelings. To brace for the worst, we must be able to cope with negative emotions. For some people with GAD, this is really difficult to do. Research shows that people with anxiety are particularly sensitive to emotions. They feel emotions more intensely, and have a harder time recovering from negative emotions than those without the disorder (Newman & Llera, 2014). They also dislike negative emotional contrasts – a shift from feeling neutral or good to feeling bad (Llera & Newman 2010; Newman & Llera, 2014). In other words, hoping for the best and then experiencing a negative event would feel worse than expecting the worst all along. To make sure they expect the worst all along, some people with GAD use worry to stay in a chronic negative emotional state. This way, they feel prepared for negative events, and feel relieved when the feared outcome does not happen. This is called the Contrast Avoidance model of anxiety (Newman & Llera, 2011).
At first glance, using contrast avoidance may seem useful. If a negative event happens, you will feel less disappointed. If a positive event happens, you will feel pleasantly surprised. So, what’s the harm? First, worrying is not a pleasant experience. Secondly, life is full of unknown possibilities. And third, preventing emotional shifts also prevents us from getting better at coping with emotions. In order to prevent unpleasant emotional experiences, people with GAD must worry and feel badly (at a more tolerable level) nearly all the time. Not only is this mentally and physically exhausting – it also fosters a fear of positive emotions and relaxation. By maintaining chronic stress, we cut out the possibility to feel a full spectrum of emotion. Finally, contrast avoidance blocks learning that is crucial to reducing worry and increasing peace in everyday life. In order to get better at coping with unpleasant emotional contrasts, we must first experience them. Just as we cannot grow stronger bodies without using our muscles, we must face discomforting experiences in order to grow.
By maintaining chronic stress, we cut out the possibility to feel a full spectrum of emotion.
If you think you may use contrast avoidance to cope with your emotions, there is good news. You can learn another method of coping. By becoming aware of contrast avoidance and how it plays a role in your life, you can decide if you want to continue this pattern. In my work as a therapist, I encourage clients to unpack their relationship to their anxiety and their emotions. Then, I carefully guide clients through their emotional experiences, and encourage them to practice emotional coping on their own. Over time, clients learn that they can cope with a wide variety of emotions, without blocking or blunting them. As they build emotional coping skills, clients can become more confident and present in their lives. They can simply be, instead of worrying about what might happen. In other words, they can hope for the best, and know that they can also withstand the worst.
Llera, S. J., & Newman, M. G. (2010). Effects of worry on physiological and subjective reactivity to emotional stimuli in generalized anxiety disorder and nonanxious control participants. Emotion, 10, 640 – 650. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ a0019351.
Newman, M. G., & Llera, S. J., (2011). A novel theory of experiential avoidance in generalized anxiety disorder: A review and synthesis of research supporting a contrast avoidance model of worry. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 371 -- 382.
Newman, M. G., & Llera, S. J. (2014). Basic science and application of the Contrast Avoidance Model in generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 24(3), 155 --167.
Caitlin Cordial is the newest member
of B'well's therapist team.
She supports her clients
as they shift from avoiding feelings
to broadening their emotional spectrums.
Caitlin currently has openings in her schedule
for new clients and is in-network with BCBS plans.
You can contact Caitlin directly through our website here.