From Self-Label to Self-Sabotage: Identifying with Anxiety Fuels Avoidance Behaviors

The more individuals identify with their anxiety, the more they tend to employ avoidant coping strategies, potentially worsening their condition.

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A new study highlights that closely identifying with mental health labels like “anxiety” can unintentionally reinforce counterproductive coping behaviors.

The research, currently available as a preprint, reveals that individuals who view their anxiety as central to their self-concept are more likely to engage in both situational and experiential avoidance.

Isaac L. Ahuvia led a team of researchers from Stony Brook University. The authors suggest that anxiety can be exacerbated by justifying avoidance through the lens of illness identity. They explain:

“The use of avoidant coping may be enhanced by one’s illness identity: the extent to which one identifies with their illness label (e.g., “anxiety”). It is useful to distinguish between two aspects of illness identity: self-labeling (identifying with an illness label at all, e.g., “I have anxiety”) and identity centrality (seeing one’s illness identity as being relatively important to one’s self-concept). Some have hypothesized that when individuals have a stronger anxiety identity, they may subsequently believe that they cannot engage in, or are justified in avoiding, certain anxiety-provoking situations (e.g., public speaking). By justifying their avoidant behavior, these individuals may unintentionally maintain their anxiety over time.”

The study’s novel approach, using a visual representation to gauge illness identity centrality, underscores the profound impact that self-perception and diagnostic language can have on mental health outcomes. This finding challenges current perspectives on anxiety management and opens up a critical dialogue on the role of identity in mental health treatment and self-care strategies.

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Liam Gehrig Bach
Liam is a studying to complete his master’s degree in animal studies at New York University. He graduated from Bard College as a biology/psychology double major and completed independent research about the psychology of perceiving conservation efforts. Liam is especially interested in using feminist and queer theory to unpack current systemic issues that affect otherized, marginalized groups. When he isn’t writing, Liam is likely walking with his dogs.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Reading this aticle was so confusing it made me anxious. But here’s my take on it just the same:

    Telling someone they have an “anxiety disorder” is just a fancy of way of saying something’s wrong with them for feeling anxious which often leads to feelings of shame. This often leads to more anxiety which often leads to more shame—so much so that people often find themselves saying “I AM anxious”, rather than “I FEEL anxious”.

    AND WHO WANTS TO GO OUT FEELING LIKE THAT???

    So, thanks to “psychiatry” we’ve got people stuck in one hell of an anxiety loop.

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  2. Like any other psychiatric diagnosis, the term “anxiety disorder” has negative connotations. And when it comes to self-identity connotation means everything, which is maybe why some people are finally saying “stop the disorder”.

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