How the Stories We Tell Ourselves Build or Relieve Anxiety

Today we hear from NYC therapist Zach Shapiro about how the stories we tell ourselves can build anxiety within us or help us chip away at anxiety's power.

About the author: Zach is a private practice therapist in the My Wellbeing network, a talented writer, and a paragon of compassion and empathy. The therapy Zach provides focuses on creating a safe, supportive and non-judgmental therapeutic space, devoted to helping each individual gain understanding and compassion for themselves. He has experience dealing with issues including major depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, bipolar disorder and addiction. His specialty is in trauma work and he has been trained in EMDR Therapy.


Choosing Our Stories Wisely

Human consciousness can sometimes feel like a real drag. As a result of our consciousness, we are given the ability to both reflect upon and try to makes sense of our past, present, and future. While so many amazing things are the result of this awareness -- the ability to create art, a deeper understanding of love and beauty, to name a few -- consciousness is also responsible for a great deal of anxiety and pain.

Our consciousness fosters in us the desire and ability to envision the future. Because the future is by nature uncertain, we’re constantly confronting uncertainty. This creates a major problem because for most people, uncertainty is a catalyst for serious anxiety.

In an article in the Atlantic Magazine, titled How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety, Dan Grupe states, “Uncertainty can lead to heightened vigilance, but I think what’s unique about humans is the ability to reflect on the fact that these future events are unknown or unpredictable. Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans in particular.”

In an effort to alleviate this distress, we utilize one the most powerful coping mechanisms we have in our arsenal: storytelling.

Storytelling is a uniquely human phenomenon that can help shape a fragmented, chaotic, and uncertain world into something more coherent, more manageable, and thus, less scary.

Often, however, we abuse our storytelling powers. And in trying to comfort ourselves with the stories we tell, we actually end up hurting ourselves even more.

As a therapist, I have observed that one of our favorite stories to tell ourselves is that the bad things that have happened in the past will continue to happen in the future. We tell ourselves this, sometimes consciously, but often unconsciously, as a way to alleviate the uncertainty that the future holds. If we believe future outcomes will happen in a similar way to how similar things have happened in the past, we feel as though the future will be less uncertain, and our anxiety is temporarily alleviated.

It might seem paradoxical that telling ourselves “bad things will continue to happen” would be comforting. And yet, we often tell ourselves this exact thing all the time to alleviate anxiety. Most people prefer believing we know a future outcome than sitting with the uncertainty of the unknown.

One example of this: Many people prefer to stay in an unhappy job or an unhappy relationship. We might know we need to make a change but we don’t. Though this area of our life might be unhappy or unfulfilling, at least it’s an unhappiness we know the contours and the boundaries of. We know our place within this unhappiness and therefore we don’t have to face the uncertainty of trying something new.

Many of us tell ourselves that we don’t take the risk of trying something new because we worry it will be worse than what we have. Often, we are just as scared of the uncertain novelty of what it would feel like for this new job or relationship to also feel better in a way we that we are also not used to.

Many of us also use a stance of pessimism as a means of protecting ourselves from uncertainty. For those who have seen consistent pain and disappointment in their past, in an effort to protect themselves from more pain, they learn to project these past experiences into their future, not just to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty, but also because it can be hard to believe in positive things like love and fulfillment when you have little experience with such things.

It is worth reiterating here: No matter how much pain we have endured in our pasts, and no matter how much disappointment we have previously experienced, we must still try and believe that there is a possibility for positive outcomes.

When we hold tight to our negative predictions, telling the same stories over and over again, we let ourselves off the hook. We give ourselves permission to not have to try for something new and better, lying to ourselves that we already know the negative outcome that is coming, when in reality we really are just uncertain.

Each and everyone one of us is guilty of projecting the past into the future. How could we not do this when our pasts are our primary framework through which we see the world?

The playwright Eugene O’Neill, the crown prince of pessimism, and a man who had endured significant trauma during his life, once wrote, “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again-now.”

O’Neill was wrong, though. He was trying to protect himself from the anxiety of uncertainty.

With an awareness of how our pasts color our expectations of the future and an acceptance of the uncertainty the future must bring, we are more likely to be able to approach the future without all the baggage of storytelling we carry around.

Only then are we are truly able to move closer to embracing uncertainty and accepting the joy, pain, love, heartache, fear, failure and success that our futures will inevitably bring.


Thank you, Zach, for sharing your perspective with us today.

 If you would like to reach Zach directly to continue the conversation or schedule an appointment, please email him at zachdshapiro@gmail.com.

Any thoughts, questions, or feedback? We'd love to hear from you. Reach our team any time at connect@mywellbeing.us.