Most people who suffer from anxiety know that the worst thing you can possibly do is try to force yourself to sleep. The more you worry about being tired in the morning, the more your brain rebels and invents new ways to keep you awake.
The power of the mind is a double-edged sword. When it’s working in your favour, you can talk yourself into amazing things. Your mind can inspire you, drive you to do things you never imagined you could achieve and put new meaning in the phrase “mind over matter.”
However, when your mind is working against you, it can invent new things to worry about constantly. It’ll force you to relive your worst memories, and when you’re trying to “take your mind off things”, it can (and usually does) drag you right back where you least want your thoughts to be.
What Are Reverse Psychology and Symptom Prescription?
Symptom prescription is a theory that has been in use for a long time, but we use other kinds of reverse psychology in our day to day lives too. Here’s how professional therapists and ordinary people use these kinds of tools to overcome their fears.
The Symptom Prescription Paradox
Viktor Frankl was a Nazi concentration camp survivor. He was also neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and author who defined the concept of “symptom prescription.” This theory, which is perfectly illustrated by the insomnia example above, is based on the concept that the more you think about something that makes you anxious, the more you will focus on it, and even obsess about it.
Psychologists have successfully used this to treat everything from phobias to compulsions. The idea being that when you deliberately expose yourself to the problem thought, behaviour or situation many times, eventually it becomes less potent, and less of a problem.
A Parental Tool
Very often, parents have used this kind of reverse psychology too. Many kids that have been found smoking or eating something they should not have eaten have found themselves being forced to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes or eating the forbidden item until they feel ill.
This kind of reverse psychology is often very successful, but it’s targeting a particular act or event. Giving people more of something than they ever wanted to have will probably make them feel sick. That means in future, they’ll want to avoid that feeling – and what triggers it.
Reverse Psychology to Trigger a Desired Action
You’ve probably used reverse psychology yourself, to trigger an action you wanted to happen.
Maybe you told someone you love that they probably couldn’t do something, purely because you wanted them to take the complete opposite action, just to prove you wrong.
Maybe you use reverse psychology on yourself, to push yourself to “prove” yourself wrong.
Reverse psychology is all about saying the opposite of what you want to see happen, so that the person you say it to takes the action you were hoping they would.
Reverse Psychology and Anxiety
One of the biggest problems with anxiety is that it is a self-perpetuating cycle. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious, the more anxious they will make you, and the more you will withdraw from those situations.
Telling yourself you can’t do something and trying to use reverse psychology to “prove” yourself wrong isn’t very effective, because you are perfectly happy to admit that you can’t do that thing.
You’re comfortable with avoiding whole chunks of your life, because it helps you to avoid feeling anxious. You don’t want to prove anything. You just want to avoid the feelings that those situations give you, so telling yourself you can’t do it will only reinforce that idea and give you permission to keep avoiding it.
Facing Your Fears
Reverse psychology might not help you to break free from crippling anxiety, but symptom prescription can.
The best way to get control of out-of-control anxiety is to face your fears. You don’t need to start big. Try doing small things that make you anxious, knowing that they do make you feel anxious, and that doing them is a big deal.
When you can do those things, even if they might make you feel anxious, and nothing bad happens to you, you will start to feel more confident to try bigger and more complex things.
One example is if public speaking makes you anxious. You wouldn’t go straight to performing on a stage, but you might start small, practicing a speech in front of a mirror, and then delivering it to your loved ones or colleagues. You will probably still feel the anxiety, but as you achieve new successes, you will discover that it’s okay to be a little nervous, and you don’t need to avoid those situations altogether.
Reverse psychology, trying to trick yourself into doing things you really don’t want to do doesn’t usually help with anxiety. Telling yourself that you can’t do something only gives you permission not to do it.
The key to truly conquering anxiety is to feel the fear and do it anyway. That’s the real power of the mind – being in control, even when it feels like you’re not.
If you or a loved one are struggling and looking for help, there are many resources available. Head to our Resources page for helplines to call and tools you can use to take care of your mental health.