Is Your Anxiety the Problem or Just a Symptom?

7 min read

How often do stress and anxiety overwhelm you to the point that it is hard to shake them off and focus on what is right in front of you? It may feel like it, but you are certainly not alone. A study from June 2020 found that more than three times as many U.S. adults had reported symptoms of severe psychological stress in April as they had in 2018 (American Psychological Association, 2020).

Having dealt with stress and anxiety from my early teens to my mid-thirties, I used to believe that all I could do was learn to cope with anxiety for the rest of my life. Yet, I overcame and healed my anxiety when I realized that this emotion wasn’t the problem but just a symptom of a deeper issue.

Similar to physical pain, which is not designed to torment us but to point us toward a physical imbalance, such as inflammation, a wound, or a growth, anxiety is a natural emotion, a mental red warning light that is supposed to keep us on alert. And just as we wouldn’t want to merely cope with or suppress physical discomfort but find out what our body needs, when we are facing anxiety, we should ask ourselves, “What are the deeper emotional and mental wounds that cause us to feel anxious?”

One of them is our core beliefs (Watson, 1989). Early on in our lives, when we were the most vulnerable and dependent on others’ support, our mind, in particular our subconscious, created a self-protection system based on the circumstances we were in. Our mind keenly observed whether we were safe, fed, wanted, and loved—and whether others could be trusted, should be avoided, or may need to be pleased to appease them. Based on these observations, our subconscious defines a set of core beliefs to keep us on our toes and prevent us from enduring further hurt, rejection, or disappointment.

The reason why you may have struggled with anxiety is that this early blueprint of self-protection has never been updated. For me, it was the limiting belief that “any time, the other shoe will drop” and “I am only of value when I am achieving the highest goals.”

Maybe for you, it is the belief that you don’t fit in or don’t measure up, which is why your subconscious self-protection strategy may have consisted of never letting anyone get close and staying in a predictable comfort zone without the risk of failure. Or you don’t believe you’re lovable, so you have been trying to prove your worthiness by pleasing and accommodating others rather than pursuing your dreams and desires.

These early core beliefs get reinforced by events that prove you can’t trust anyone or are not good enough because you didn’t meet others’ expectations (Koerner, 2017). Let’s say a friend doesn’t return your calls, your mom laments that you never stop by, and at work, you are overwhelmed with a tight deadline. Your mind cross-references the current experiences with memories of similar events. As soon as your subconscious perceives you to be in danger, it rings the anxiety alarm bells and makes you act in the same self-protective ways that served you when you were little.

This is when you shift from being a competent adult to feeling and behaving like you did when you were a kid. You shrink when you feel criticized, overextend yourself to get approval, and want to hide under a blanket to avoid uncomfortable tasks. Even though, rationally, you know that you should shrug off other people’s opinions and face potential challenges calmly and level-headedly, the subconscious protective patterns continue to override any logic and reasoning.

Besides keeping you in a self-defeating anxiety loop, the problem with limiting beliefs is that they can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies (Jussim, 2001). You probably know this quote by Henry Ford: “If you believe you can or cannot, you’re always right.”

Let’s say you believe you are not being good enough and that most people around you are more capable, successful, and likable. No matter what you plan to do, you assume, at least subconsciously, that the outcomes of your actions will only confirm that you will not measure up once again. Not only will you pursue your plans with less energy, confidence, and focus, but you will also interpret the results of your actions as, once again, inadequate.

Consequently, you will feel even more anxious, insecure, and deflated, further increasing the validity and realness of the I’m not good enough belief. Through these self-reinforcing cycles, a limiting belief becomes your identity.

The good news is that we can change core beliefs once we identify those that have been driving our anxiety. The following questions can help you uncover which core beliefs have limited you the most.

What limiting beliefs were you surrounded with in your childhood? Think about what your parents, teachers, or other important people surrounding you during your early years told you about others, money, work, health, or life in general. What do you recall they believed about you? How did they view and treat themselves? Did anything you heard or experienced in those relationships make you feel anxious, smaller, or unsafe?

Which of those limiting beliefs have you adopted and still hold on to? Someone might have told you you were not smart enough, too sensitive, or fundamentally flawed, and even though it might have hurt you, at one point, you accepted their judgment as the truth. Or perhaps one of your parents was a worrier and very critical of themselves. Perhaps you had so much empathy for your anxious and insecure mother or father that you somehow identified yourself with them.

Which aspects of your life cause you to feel the most anxious, insecure, or trapped? Then ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” When you have an answer, ask yourself, “Why?” or “Why not?” When you receive the answer to the question of “Why?” or “Why not?” dig four to five levels deeper until you uncover the limiting belief. Don’t overthink—go with the first answers you get. Here’s an example of how your inner discussion might take place.

“I’m stuck. I don’t like my job.”

“Why do I feel this way?”

“Because I’ve been job hunting for a long time and couldn’t get anything better.”

“Why not?”

“Because my education is lacking.”


“Because I didn’t go to college.”

“Why not?”

“Because I thought I would fail.”


“Because I’m not smart enough.”

And there it is, one of your limiting core beliefs.

What are the common denominators and themes of your negative, anxiety-driven self-talk? Notice how your anxious thoughts may revolve around recurring topics such as failure, judgment, lack, safety, and loneliness. Even beliefs that ostensibly seem to be about others or external circumstances, such as “People don’t like me,” “Nobody can be trusted,” and “There isn’t enough money to go around,” are ultimately based upon limiting assumptions and perceptions of yourself. The associated beliefs might be any of the following: “I don’t have what it takes,” “I can’t have what I want,” “I am not safe,” and “I don’t belong.”

To test whether you’ve found an anxiety-triggering belief, ask yourself what would change if you stopped believing it—or believed the opposite. Would you think differently? Would you feel more motivated to move toward what you want? And most important, would you see yourself differently? You’ve uncovered a limiting core belief if eliminating and replacing it would make the difference between anxiously reacting to a particular situation or person or calm and confidently responding.

Uncovering my limiting beliefs was a massive step toward overcoming my anxiety. I was no longer scared of this emotion or felt condemned to manage its intensity. Instead, I realized I could actively address the underlying root causes and eventually upgrade my outdated self-protective owner’s manual with a more empowering and reassuring belief system, one that reflected who I had become and not who I used to believe I had to be.

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