Looking Anxiety In the Eye (to conquer it)
Anxiety. What a loaded word. We've all experienced it in some form or another, and in general, it gets a pretty bad rep as far as emotions go. No emotion is inherently bad and anxiety is no different—we need some of it to stay motivated—but when we're dealing with a little too much, or WAY too much, it can seriously get in the way.
For me, anxiety shows up in a lot of social situations and the classic: public speaking. And guess what I will be doing this weekend? Yep, casually socializing with about 250 people at a family wedding, all of whom will be present to hear a speech given by yours truly (what an honor, right?). By the time you are reading this it will be over, so stay tuned for how that goes... But really, if you had asked me 5 years ago that I was going to speak in front of 250 people, a total of 500 eyes on ME, I would have said, "Aww, HELL no," then reluctantly agreed after some wine, and then probably cried in the corner the day of. (That's a bit of an exaggeration, but honestly not too far off.) The point being, I historically would have done anything to avoid a situation like that. So, what's changed? Well, in technical, psychological terms: habituation. Let me explain...
The term habituation comes from an evidence-based treatment for any kind of anxiety or fear-based disorder called exposure therapy. The theory behind this treatment goes something like this: we have something that makes us anxious, whether it's something in our environment, our own perception—a trigger. In my case, talking in front of a shit-ton of people. The emotional response to that trigger is the anxiety or the fear, and whatever other emotions come with that. And of course when we're faced with these uncomfortable feelings, we naturally want to run away from them, avoid them somehow, or do something to ease our anxiety. Exposure therapy calls these attempts to avoid "safety behaviors." Our brain learns very quickly that if we just engage in that safety behavior, our anxiety will go down.
The problem is, when we encounter the same fear-provoking situation in the future, we're right back to square one: our anxiety is still there, and we have to continue avoiding to get short-term relief. Before we know it, this avoidance can become pathological, and we end up avoiding more and more things, just to escape our anxiety. This leaves us with a much smaller world and less fulfilling lives. The very thing that we think is keeping us safe, is actually maintaining, and even increasing, our anxiety. Here is a little visual of this vicious cycle from TherapistAid.com:
So, what's the solution? Exposure therapy tells us, and the research shows, we have to stop engaging in safety behaviors and expose ourselves to the very thing that we fear. Over and over. Eventually our brains learn that, "Hey, I'm actually okay. I lived." And our anxiety goes away with the passage of time. We habituate, or become desensitized, to the thing that originally caused our anxiety.
So in my case, I was forced to give enough presentations in graduate school and now do enough group therapy that I got used to talking in-front of people by continually being put in that situation. Don't get me wrong, having to talk in front of 250 people still gives me anxiety and I certainly won't be going into politics anytime soon—but I know I'll be able to handle it. (Plus, who actually remembers maid of honor speeches, amiright?) The cool thing is that the model for exposure therapy is very well-supported and the concept can be applied to any kind of fear-based concern, be it PTSD, a specific phobia, or OCD.
So, whether you're dealing with some kind of anxiety disorder and are looking for an effective form of treatment, or just trying to get through your next job interview, remember that the age-old saying to "face your fears" actually holds some weight.
You got this!
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]