Don’t Avoid Your Anxiety

I’ve been debating bringing up the topic of avoidance and anxiety right now. It’s a pretty tough time for everyone, and I’m not sure my thoughts will be very welcome when most people, nevermind those of us in the anxiety community, are just trying to cope with current events. Still, I think it’s an important topic to discuss because even if just going to the store is a legitimately scary prospect these days it won’t always be.

Avoidance, to put it simply, is going out of your way to not deal with something, in this case that’s the feeling you get from anxiety. It’s very easy to want to avoid the things that make us anxious, it’s part of our brain’s defense mechanism and it’s working as intended. Anxiety is meant to protect us, and we’re wired to avoid the things that provoke that anxiety because in the caveman days it was the difference between life and death. The problem comes in when a relatively innocuous thing evokes that anxiety, and even though the chances of being mauled by a tiger just walking down the street is astronomically low, our brains are stuck in the stone age when that was a legitimate threat.

So it’s very easy to fall into the pattern of avoidance. Going to the store (in non-Covid times) is a pretty safe activity, but if you have a panic attack in the store your brain just automatically flags it as dangerous, even though you know logically that it’s safe. How do we break that avoidance if it’s so ingrained in the makeup of our brains? If you’ve spent any time looking into anxiety disorders then you’ve probably come across the term “exposure therapy”. This involves putting yourself in situations that give you anxiety to break the association between that and your avoidance behaviors.

Say you have a fear of dogs, you’re absolutely terrified of them. The fact is the majority of dogs are safe, you know this logically but maybe you got bit when you were younger, or the sound of barking scared you as a child. Whatever the case, you can overcome that fear by spending time with a dog. Maybe you start just standing in the same room, then when you feel ok with that you get closer to the dog, then you reach your hand out to let them sniff, etc. Whatever the situation, you can apply the same strategy by starting small and working your way up. As long as you keep up the repetition you can break down the connections your brain has built up.

I’m a believer in the incremental approach to exposure. It’s how I’ve worked through my anxiety, and have got to the point I’m at. But I know a lot of people advocate for what’s called “flooding”. To go back to the dog example, this would involve going from zero right to letting the dog jump on you. I’m not an expert on psychology and I can only speak to my own experiences, but I would compare “flooding” to jumping into the deep end of the pool without learning how to swim. It might work for some people, but if you don’t have the tools to manage your anxiety in an exposure situation you’re not going to be successful, and depending on the situation you could even reinforce that anxiety.

One of the best phrases I keep in mind when it comes to exposure is something I heard from one of the social workers at an intensive outpatient program I did a few years back; “How do you get to play at Carnegie Hall? Practice. Practice. Practice.” Overcoming your biggest fear is playing at Carnegie Hall, and like any musician, you have to start by learning the basics. In this case, that’s deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and positive self-talk.

You start out playing simple songs, the things that make you a little anxious, and you keep pushing yourself further as you feel more comfortable and confident. The music gets more complex, you start doing things that are scarier and scarier. You will progress at your own pace, there’s no such thing as too fast or too slow as long as you keep practicing every day. If you avoid playing the music you won’t get better, and you won’t make it to Carnegie Hall.

I hope I didn’t totally lose all of you and completely butcher that metaphor.

If you give in to your instinct to avoid the anxiety you’re only reinforcing that anxiety. You’re letting the anxiety control you, and the more you let it control you the harder it becomes to break that control. Trust me, I let my anxiety control me for a long time and it’s a hole I’m still digging myself out of. Even now, in the middle of a global pandemic, you have to push yourself as much as you safely can.

I definitely want to talk about how I’ve been dealing with my anxiety during the pandemic, especially in regards to not merely trying to survive but thriving as much as I can. However, this post is already getting a bit long and I don’t want to take it totally off the rails. Consider this a cliffhanger, until Friday…

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