Overcoming Anxiety

If you’re reading this, chances are that you or someone you care about is suffering from anxiety. You’re definitely not alone. Experiencing anxiety is part of being a human being, but if you’re experiencing it too often it may interfere with your daily enjoyment of people and activities that are important and meaningful to you. Overcoming anxiety doesn’t mean making it go completely away. It means learning to work with it in a way that allows you to really engage with your experience as a human being and not miss out on things that are important to you.

A common response to anxiety is avoidance. This makes sense, right? Fear is a gift that helps us know when a situation may be dangerous and therefore possibly worth avoiding. For example, I can remember the first time my peers pressured me into going off the high dive. I looked down over the edge and thought, “no way”. It makes sense, human beings aren’t supposed to feel comfortable jumping off of high places. I wanted to turn around, climb down the ladder and hide in the kiddie pool. But after a substantial amount of positive self-talk and peer pressure, I summoned the courage to jump off, having a thrilling, exciting experience that left me feeling elated and wanting to do it again.

Avoidance is a great response to anxiety, if it helps you avoid truly dangerous situations which could leave you physically and/or emotionally injured (e.g., jumping off a cliff; an abusive relationship). However, the major limiting factor of avoidance is that it restricts you from experiences that could be adding to the richness and enjoyment of your life (having good relationships, doing fun activities). For that reason, it makes sense that people are interested in overcoming anxiety or at least the over-abundance of anxiety that limits their capacity to enjoy life.

Exposure: When it Does and Doesn’t Work

Many schools of therapy involve some kind of exposure to anxiety provoking situations in the interest of practicing strategies to feel more comfortable with these situations. For instance, if you have a fear of flying and you always avoid airplanes, you won’t have an opportunity to overcome this fear.

That being said, there are people who are confronted by their fears all the time and who report a steady increase of anxiety related to these fears over time. They’ve been exposed to plenty of anxiety provoking situations, but they haven’t gotten any more comfortable with the situations or with the anxiety within them. Why is that?

It doesn’t do any good to have a negative, horrible experience with something you already consider to be negative and horrible. For instance, what if a peer had pushed me off the high dive and I had fallen and injured myself? I can only imagine my anxiety would be higher the next time I found myself high off the ground, despite the exposure to this type of experience. I would also likely find myself avoiding the high dive and perhaps even develop a fear of heights.

What helps is exposure to potentially anxiety-provoking situations while also having some kind of a positive experience with them. In my case with the high dive, my fear only served to make the experience more thrilling and fun, leading not to avoidance, but to a desire to repeat the experience. Over time, even some very anxiety-provoking situations can be transformed into powerfully meaningful experiences.

Fear or Avoidance of Anxiety = More Anxiety

It’s one things to say that you’d like to have a more positive experience in situations that cause anxiety for you, it’s another thing to do it. Most people who come to therapy have had anxiety for awhile and have already tried many things to stop being anxious. Furthermore, most people who come to therapy with anxiety come to get rid of it or to at least substantially reduce it. Ironically, the more one attempts to avoid the experience of anxiety, the greater it often seems to grow. People trying to avoid anxiety fear that they will fail or that their anxiety will come back, which then causes more (not less) anxiety. It reminds me of one of those “Chinese Finger Traps” where the harder you try to pull your fingers out, the more they are trapped.

It’s difficult to get out of this vicious cycle but one method involves not trying to reduce anxiety, but trying to change one’s relationship to anxiety. What would this entail? It’s different for everyone and depends on your experience of anxiety, the situations that make it better and make it worse. One place to start is to build awareness for the different aspects of your experience of anxiety. Start becoming aware of the different physical sensations, thoughts, images, emotions that are a part of it, but try to do this without getting overwhelmed by, or totally sucked into the experience.

From there, you can explore which sensations are ok with you and which aren’t. A lot of people start out feeling that any part of anxiety is unacceptable and horrible, but after breaking down their experience find that certain parts are ok. For example, people have told me that breathing hard is ok after running, but not ok during a panic attack. In that case, even though panic attacks might feel unacceptable, breathing hard actually feels ok. This kind of exploration can start opening up your experience more and start changing your relationship to anxiety.

Therapists practicing ACT therapy (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) have an extensive toolbox for helping people develop this kind of awareness and to begin changing their relationship to their anxiety. I highly recommend working with a therapist who practices this approach (wink). If therapy isn’t feasible at this time, I recommend working with a workbook that describes some of these techniques. My favorite is, “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life”, by Stephen Hayes and Spencer Smith. (http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781572244252). That being said, applying these techniques is not a simple cut and dry “cure” and it can be very helpful to have an ally to support you through obstacles and confusion that can arise.

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