Understanding beliefs associated with anxiety
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
Editor’s note: This is the first in a 3-part series from the Barmanns about “core beliefs” endorsed by those who are dealing with chronic worry and anxiety. Look to a future edition of the Sierra Sun for Part 2.
How we view our world is like the window we look through each morning upon awakening — it’s our frame of reference; the manner in which we view ourselves, and others.
In essence, it’s the very core of us and, to a significant extent, is responsible for the formation of our personality. The beliefs we strongly endorse help us decide if we’re worthy or worthless, competent or inept, trusting or suspicious, self-reliant or needy, flexible or judgmental, fairly treated or victimized.
When we consistently think in a negative and restrictive manner regarding ourselves, or how we are treated by others, we find ourselves prisoners behind bars of conviction: “Don’t go to that social function, you might make a fool of yourself;” “Don’t get involved in another romantic relationship, you’ll be abandoned again;” or “Don’t take that job promotion, you won’t be able to handle more responsibility.”
Core beliefs can serve a positive function in our lives, resulting in feelings of security and happiness. However, in the case of those who suffer from chronic worry, certain core beliefs are directly responsible for the experience of negative emotions.
DEVELOPMENT OF CORE BELIEFS
During approximately the first 15 years of our life, we begin to form a set of beliefs related to how we interpret and attempt to better understand the daily interactions we have with those whom we consider important (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, friends).
Throughout this process, we cultivate beliefs regarding concepts such as fairness, trust, vulnerability, abandonment, competency, etc.
For example, consider a young girl in grade school, raised in a dysfunctional family system; a household consisting of emotional and physical abuse. She has an alcoholic stepfather who frequently physically and emotionally abused her, and her mother.
Growing up in this environment soon resulted in the formation of beliefs concerning trust, danger, alcohol, vulnerability, relationships, etc.
One day after school, this girl is approached by a good friend of hers, who asks if she can come over to her house for a play date. Not knowing what to expect when arriving home from school with her friend, what response would you expect her to make?
To say, “sure, come over to my house and meet the family,” would involve a great deal of uncertainty and risk. “What if” her alcoholic stepfather is involved in another binge drinking episode, physically assaulting her mother, throwing beer bottles against the walls, etc.?
Can you imagine walking into the house with one of your best friends, hoping this scene doesn’t occur?
Raised in such a family system, this young girl will soon acquire two beliefs which will become the very core of her personality.
The first will involve an “intolerance of uncertainty.” That is, she believes situations which involve uncertain outcomes represent potential danger, causing her to “error on the side of caution” when needing to make decisions which she perceives as threatening.
In this case, the potential threat isn’t only physical harm, but also social humiliation. As these life events occur more frequently, another belief begins to form — “overestimate the probability of danger.”
Beliefs of this nature make perfect sense; they represent a way of thinking which is synonymous with physical and emotional survival.
To not endorse these beliefs would be naive — at that time in one’s life. The problem is, core beliefs, once formed, become the individual’s default manner of appraising ambiguous situations for their entire life; even when no longer necessary for survival.
CORE BELIEFS AND ANXIETY
Certain types of phobias serve an evolutionary survival value, such as our neurologically hard-wired fears of particular animals who once represented the threat of death.
Many of our core beliefs were formed for similar reasons — we needed those beliefs to “survive” daily interactions.
However, several of these beliefs are no longer needed today, yet still remain. Our task isn’t to resist these strongly held convictions; instead, we need to:
Be cognizant of what our core beliefs are, as they relate to the development of anxious arousal;
Understand which life events are consistently responsible for causing specific core beliefs to surface and;
Be aware of patterns of thinking and behaving which are triggered by our core beliefs.
Three core beliefs endorsed by those who evidence chronic worry, consist of (1) “overestimating the probability of danger (threat),” (2) an “intolerance for uncertainty,” and (3) “underestimating a perceived ability to effectively handle situations involving uncertain outcomes,” thus creating a sense of vulnerability. As a result, worriers live by the motto, “it is best to be safe than sorry.”
In part 2, we’ll take a closer look at the factors responsible for maintaining these beliefs.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.