Reduce Your Anxiety by Taking Chances
Avoidance: Fueling the Fire of Anxiety
It is human nature to want to avoid things that feel unpleasant or uncomfortable. For example, if you were electrocuted every time you touched your toaster, would you keep your finger on it? I’m guessing that you’d pull away. We are wired to respond to our environment and learn ways of avoiding pain or discomfort, as it has helped us to survive. I am equally guilty of this – I don’t like getting hurt; I don’t even like being without my slippers for too long.
I can think of many people who seem to actually love the adrenaline that comes with risk and/or pain, and have no difficulties with the inherent uncertainty that comes from taking chances. But this is probably not the crowd who would be prone to the type of anxiety I am talking about here.
How Avoidance Contributes to Anxiety
In the case of people who do struggle with certain types of anxiety, an association is established where a particular place or situation is perceived as a threat, and avoided at all costs. For someone with social anxiety, for example, there is usually a core fear of being judged by others, and so that person will avoid situations where there is a potential for this to happen (parties, dating, job interviews).
But this approach can cause problems in the long-term, because as people avoid, the associated fear grows stronger. Avoidance perpetuates the fear because it also causes that person to lose confidence in their ability to navigate the situation next time. It tends to keep them stuck in the cycle and prevents progress from being made, as they are not allowing the chance to prove themselves wrong.
Taking Small Chances
Whether the fear is about being disliked, giving a big presentation, driving, or almost anything else, the best thing you can do is gradually expose yourself to it directly or the idea of it. Will you feel uncomfortable? Yes. Will you survive? Likely. And what people realize, if they do it for long enough, is that the discomfort or anxiety does weaken over time. They just need to give themselves the chance to figure that out on their own. And then something shifts – they begin feeling more confident and their tolerance grows.
How Vulnerability Helps with Anxiety
You can think of vulnerability as the opposite of avoidance. This is difficult for anybody – intentionally putting down your guard and possibly inviting in criticism and increasing your chances of getting hurt. The thing is, being vulnerable is also essential to living a full life! When anxiety is running the show, you are unprepared to take risks, so you miss out on opportunities. As a result, your sense of self, confidence, optimism and trust in your ability to get through moments with ease suffer too. And this downward spiral can continue until we do something different.
In therapy, a client is encouraged to welcome in the things that make them uncomfortable, but this is done at a slow pace, in a safe environment, while they also learn skills to cope with these situations and the feelings that result.
This isn’t to say that we all need to suffer all the time. I think it’s a balancing act between taking care of ourselves and doing things that bring us joy and comfort, while still being able to go out into the world and take incremental risks. That’s how growth happens, after all.
This doesn’t mean I’ll be jumping out of an airplane anytime soon, but you get the idea.