Logically, trying to escape or avoid anxiety makes a lot of sense. It’s uncomfortable, it causes us to do things that aren’t in line with who I want to be, so let’s try to avoid it.
In practice, however, this makes things worse.
Anxiety’s drug of choice
The drug of choice for anxiety is avoidance because it gives us certainty for comfort – instant relief and a band-aide for anxiety.
For example, maybe we’re socially anxious and we avoid an invitation to a party where we know there will be potential to make friends. We decline the invitation to avoid anxiety. We are rewarded by instant relief and comfort.
The problem, however, is that when we notice the instant relief, we begin to use avoidance as our main coping strategy. As a result, our other coping strategies get lost. We forget how to use them.
Also, as we rely on avoidance more our ability to tolerate anxiety begins to decrease.
It’s a reinforcing cycle: the more we avoid, the less tolerance we have for anxiety, and the more things in the world we need to avoid to get the same level of comfort.
We become addicted to avoidance.
Leaning into anxiety
The antidote to avoidance is to consistently confronting our anxiety.
This doesn’t mean we push through things we are extremely nervous about. Because that can leave us traumatized and even more anxious.
Instead we’re looking for middle ground: leaning into anxiety.
By consistently leaning in, we begin to build our tolerance for anxiety and begins to impact us less and less.
It’s not that our anxiety disappears, it’s just that we become more skilled at dealing with it.
So, what are some strategies for leaning into our anxiety?
Thoughts – feelings – actions
An important concept in psychology is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and actions all influence one another.
Take for example, presenting in front of a group of colleagues who begin to whisper, point, and laugh. For most of us, this will produce a number of thoughts:
- They are negatively judging me
- I’m going to get fired
- I’m incompetent
- I’m an idiot
Then these thought produce intense feelings:
And we might have certain behavioral urges:
- Run out of the conference room
- Make an excuse to end the presentation
When we’re experiencing intense emotions like anxiety, our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all become one. We quickly and automatically jump from a thought or feeling, into action.
This auto reaction is helpful in life or death situations. However, most of the time, our lives aren’t in danger.
Understanding, becoming more aware, and deconstructing our thoughts, feelings, and urges can help us gain more control over our automatic responses.
Our thoughts are pretty random. Try this activity:
Close your eyes for 15 seconds. Pay attention to the thoughts and at the same time, try hard not to think about a purple unicorn.
. . .
. . .
. . .
How’d that go? Most of us think about a purple unicorn at some point. Some of us have a voice in the back of our minds repeating “don’t think about the purple unicorn, don’t think about the purple unicorn,” which is pretty much thinking about a purple unicorn.
Others of us are noticing random thoughts pop into our brain while the purple unicorn comes and goes.
This is an example of how little control we have over our initial thoughts. And most of the time our initial thoughts are just junk.
In psychology, we call these junk thoughts Thought Distortions. They are flaws in our thinking. Thoughts that distort reality.
Catastrophizing is one of the types of thought distortions and it’s the most relevant to anxiety. It’s when our brain convinces us that the worst possible situation is going to happen: I’m going to go snorkeling and get eaten by a shark.
Going back to the Thoughts – Feelings – Actions, you can see that if we’re having catastrophizing thoughts, we’re going to experience anxiety.
Here are some other thought distortions:
Emotional Reasoning – Our minds convince us that our emotions accurately reflect reality. “I’m afraid, therefore this is a threatening situation.” Just because we feel a certain way, doesn’t make it true.
Negative Filter – Our minds hyper-focus on the negative and ignore any positive. Take for example having a performance evaluation by your manager. Most of it’s positive, you get raise, and there’s one need for improvement. You walk out of the office and your mind only focuses on the need for improvement.
Black & White Thinking – Our minds love to simplify things and put life into simple boxes: good or bad; he is amazing or he is awful. Every situation has positives and negatives. Life is full of grey, but our minds convince us otherwise.
Should Statements– This is when we have unreasonable expectations for ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel nervous speaking in front of other people.” Underneath should statements are negative judgements about ourselves.
Personalization – Our minds can blame us for things we had nothing to do with. “My partner is in a bad mood, I must have caused it.” Just because there’s something negative going on near us, doesn’t mean we caused it.
Mind Reading – Our minds convince us that we know for certain what someone else is thinking. We can never know for certain what’s going on in someone else’s brain.
Awareness and Acceptance
Logically, it makes a lot of sense to attempt to stop thought distortions and stop anxious feelings altogether.
The bad new is this isn’t possible.
At the same time, it’s a relief. Because a lot of our anxiety can be from trying to escape the anxiety. We’re anxious about being anxious.
By reminding ourselves that thought distortions and anxiety is normal, we can give up on running and trying to escape.
As long as we remain human, we will continue to have flawed thinking and unpleasant emotions. The sooner we accept this, the better.
Instead of trying to avoid or get rid of negative thoughts and emotions, a more realistic goal is just to become aware of them more often.
Most of the day, we’re on autopilot. And if we’re on autopilot, we’re susceptible to our illogical emotions and thoughts. And we’re more likely to fall into an avoidant strategy.
The more often we can become aware of our current state, that is our thoughts – feelings – urges, the more control we can have over our situation.
And once we are aware, if we can slowly accept our current state for what it is, we give our anxiety less power.
We realize that our emotions, thoughts, urges are more like weather systems passing by. We know they will come again and they will pass again. Some storms will be more intense, but they will pass.
“Anxiety is visiting me again. I’ve seen you before. And I’ll see you again. But, I’m going to go ahead and give that presentation anyways.”
We must continue to walk into the weather instead of trying to constantly avoid it.