It is undeniable to say that anxiety is one of the most reprehensible emotions available to us in the human experience. For most of us, we go to painstaking efforts to ensure that we don’t experience even a scintilla of anxiety throughout our day to day lives.
Going out of our way to avoid our many fears may seem like a great idea in the moment, but there is a plethora of pernicious consequences associated with such behaviors if left unattended to.
For example, when we make a conscious decision to avoid going to a certain place because of the anxiety it may give us or to avoid having certain conversations with people due to the same reason, we are then reassuring ourselves that the object we are avoiding is worthy of being feared. Such a self-fulfilling prophecy does nothing more than exacerbate our fears and enhance our adeptness at remaining neurotic.
Sure, the inherent inclination we all have to avoid fear is nothing more than evolution at play. However, the problem here is that for those of us who suffer from anxiety to a degree that is aberrant from that which is considered rational, such evolutionary adaptations are no longer useful, but are instead extremely harmful.
The reality is that for most people who are anxious, their fears are nothing more than illusions. This is as true for me as it is for the millions of people suffering from anxiety at this very moment.
Understanding that the majority of our fears are irrational, and therefore not worth worrying about is likely something you’ve heard of before, but this is only the first part of the equation. It is when we decide to change the way we approach anxiety when we are able to free ourselves from the illusion of irrational fear.
Assuredly, some of you may be wondering, “What is an irrational fear and what isn’t?” This is a very important question as I myself have struggled with this conundrum for many years with my generalized anxiety (GAD) and OCD. With regards to the latter condition, I would oftentimes question what was real – that is, if my obsessions were based in reality or not. Such personal quarrels can be truly debilitating and can rob you of any sense of security in your world.
What helped me to better understand what was rational and what was irrational with regards to my OCD was a brilliant book by the name of Brain Lock. This book was recommended to me by the first psychiatrist I saw back when I was 17. In the book, it addresses this very problem by encouraging you to remember the following affirmation: “If you think it’s OCD, it probably is.” This same logic can be used for people suffering from other types of anxiety too.
You can simply do this by asking yourself, “Is the anxiety I’m experiencing right now irrational? If you think your fears may be irrational, then they probably are. Personally, I have found that challenging the validity of my anxious thoughts has given me a great deal of security and confidence as I don’t have to believe every thought that pops into my mind. No, I can instead challenge them.
Although this all sounds useful, realizing that some of your fears are irrational only does so much for you. Yes, it helps you to have a better sense of security as you make your way through the day, but it doesn’t actually fix the problem of your anxiety. To address this issue head-on, we must change the way we approach our anxiety.
For those of us who suffer from chronic anxiety, we cannot treat our anxiousness as incontrovertible evidence that we are in real danger. This cannot be the case for us in every instance that we experience anxiety because the majority of fears are completely fictitious and are but a fabrication of our own imagination.
For those of us who are highly anxious, we need to look at anxiety not as an inherent tool used to help us avoid real danger, but rather as an opportunity to challenge those fears. We should become truly interested in the experience of anxiety and all that it entails, as opposed to mindlessly reacting to it.
Just because “you” think a thought or experience an emotion does not mean that the thought is true, nor does it mean that the emotion associated with that thought is an appropriate or useful emotion to experience. Many of us think that because “we” thought it or “we” felt it, that it must therefore be veridical. This is simply nothing more than a misunderstanding of consciousness and how thoughts and emotions arise.
I ask you, what is it about anxiety that you find to be so uncomfortable? Is it the increased heart rate that you don’t like? Perhaps it’s the increased body temperature or the shakiness that you’re opposed to?
When you think about it, is anxiety truly an intolerable experience? Haven’t you tolerated it before? Are the thoughts and physiological sensations associated with your anxiety inherently reprehensible, or do you just perceive them to be this way?
I can assure you that the degree to which most of us suffer from anxiety is undoubtedly based on the illusory perception we have about the sensations associated with this emotion.
When we have an uncomfortable conversation with someone that gives us anxiety or when we anxiously walk into a crowded bar, the vast array of benefits we’re actually accruing from those experiences is paradoxically salient to the greatest degree imaginable.
In each moment we find ourselves experiencing irrational anxiety, we should see it not as an uncomfortable experience that we dread enduring, but rather as a new opportunity to desensitize ourselves to it. This is indeed a paradox that is overtly antithetical to our innate desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
The severity of your anxiety doesn’t change how you should approach this either. Whether your fears are miniscule and are but a small annoyance or if they cause you to experience full blown panic attacks, you should look at your irrational fears in the same light.
With such a perspective, you literally have the power to zap all of the strength that is woven into every strand of your anxiety by seeing it for what it truly is, just a transitory emotion experienced in the mind and body resulting from subconscious beliefs with which we have no direct control over.
Your thoughts do not tell you anything factual about reality, nor do your emotions. They are instead tools to help you perceive what reality is, and in the mind of an anxious person, like myself, such tools are often quite faulty. The contents of our thoughts, as well as the emotions associated with those thoughts are often misleading and are the precursors to further suffering.
So, if we are to accept that it is irrational to believe every single thought that arbitrarily arises in our mind, as well as that emotions themselves are sometimes (and for the anxious person, oftentimes) based on our own biased perceptions of reality, then it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for us to react to our thoughts and emotions as if they were objectively accurate depictions of reality.
This realization should therefore give us all the impetus we would ever need to put forth an active effort in challenging the validity of our thoughts and emotions when and if they appear to be superfluous or incongruous with reality.
Furthermore, when we see uncomfortable situations that we find ourselves in as being another opportunity to desensitize ourselves from our irrational fears, as well as another opportunity to become more experienced at coping with anxiety, then the more adept we will be at thwarting unnecessary psychological suffering in the future.
When we realize that anxiety itself does not tell us anything factual about reality, but rather that it is merely a tool used to help us perceive reality, then we will be much better equipped to handle the pain that is associated with exposing ourselves to our fears.
Dipping your toes in exposure therapy
Sure, exposure therapy isn’t for everyone. Nevertheless, it appears unequivocal that it can help to thwart chronic anxiety to a degree that is hardly matched by any other form of treatment currently available.
One of the best ways to expose yourself to your fears is to take baby steps; to gradually expose yourself to greater intensities of anxiety as time goes on and as you begin to become better at coping with those situations.
Indeed, we are often very adept salespeople when it comes to our ability to convince ourselves that there is absolutely no way we could ever handle the anxiety and sheer psychological torment associated with facing our biggest fears. However, the truth is that we can endure much more pain than we think we actually can. One simply needs only to endure that which they thought was unendurable to understand this fact.
When you successfully face one of your fears, you’re consciously and subconsciously procuring further proof to yourself that you can indeed cope with your fears. It is in these moments when resiliency is built and strengthened.
It is incredibly powerful to have the foreknowledge that for every anxiety provoking or emotionally uncomfortable situation you find yourself in, the direct byproduct of those experiences will be nothing short of improved resiliency and self-confidence in your ability to more adeptly regulate your emotions in the future.
Such beliefs that you’ll now withhold about yourself cannot be disputed as you already proved to yourself that you indeed could handle the fearful situation you were in, whatever that situation was. Although this is definitely a useful way to overcome your fears, there is a latency issue here seeing as how your ability to overcome them is immutably contingent upon there being an available fear for you to overcome in the first place.
So, instead of waiting around for anxiety to find you, I encourage you to find it. Assuredly, this is the antithesis of what anyone who has anxiety wants to do.
Be that as it may, taking an active, aggressive approach at tackling your anxiety relentlessly and indefatigably will give you the self-confidence and reassurance you so deeply desire. In every anxious person walking the Earth at this very moment is an inherent desire to avoid anything and everything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
For many of us, we want nothing more in the world than to simply feel safe, secure, and in control of our lives. In fact, we may even convince ourselves that by taking an “active” role in avoiding our fears, we are then providing ourselves with the security and equanimity we’ve been longing for.
This is an illusion that many people with anxiety often give in to. So many of us succumb to the whims of our emotions, indulging in short-term relief at the expense of long-term equanimity. For every instance you decide to run away from your fears, the light at the end of the tunnel becomes dimmer.
Breaking the habit of running away from your fears
Most of us who are anxious are stuck in the habit of running away from our fears. This should come as no surprise to anyone. For those of you who are smokers, you surely know how challenging it can be to quit a harmful habit. Nevertheless, it can still be done insofar as you are truly committed to doing it.
Quitting the habit of running away from your fears is no different. There are many ways you can go about breaking this habit, such as by making a conscious effort to actively put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Although doing so is antithetical to what we often feel like doing, I assure you that doing so will only speed up this process as the alternative would be to simply wait around for an anxiety provoking situation to randomly affect you.
Theoretically, the more anxiety provoking situations you experience, the easier it will be for you to cope with similar experiences in the future. So, to speed up this process and to see success more quickly, you will need to find out what it is you’re afraid of and face it.
Exactly what is it that makes you anxious? Is it a person at work whom you deeply dislike? Are you afraid of crowds? How about talking to new people? It’s normal for us to want to protect ourselves by running away from such fears, but we must understand that by doing so, we are thereby reinforcing those fears and reassuring ourselves that they are indeed worthy of our attention. The more we run away from our fears, the more we convince ourselves of this lie.
We absolutely must break this habit by replacing it with a much healthier one. The healthier habit I’m proposing here is to actively put yourself in uncomfortable situations so that you can desensitize yourself to your fears.
Are you afraid of crowds? Then go to areas that are crowded. Are you afraid of asking someone on a date for fear of being rejected or judged? Then ask him or her out. Are you afraid to voice your opinions to others? Then start voicing your opinions more in front of other people.
As long as overcoming your fears doesn’t result in harming yourself or anyone else (unless you or they consent to being harmed, of course), then there is nothing to fear about this transaction.
Obviously, you’ll need to use common sense here, as there are some fears that are rational and should not be faced, such as fighting a grizzly bear or picking up a poisonous snake. However, for our irrational fears, facing them head on is one of the best ways to truly overcome them.
Whenever I find myself in an anxiety provoking situation, I try to see it not as a painful experience that I desperately need to run away from, but rather, I try to see it as a challenge to see how well I can regulate my emotions during that experience.
I’ve had enough anxiety inducing situations in my life to no longer be surprised by the sensations that arise in my body when I’m anxious (i.e. racing heartbeat, sweating, shakiness, dry mouth, etc.), nor am I surprised by the influx of racing worry thoughts that come rushing in either.
For example, I know that the next conversation I have with a stranger, I’ll likely experience some symptoms of anxiety, even if only a miniscule amount. Having this foreknowledge gives me a sense of security as I know what to expect. The same can be said for you as you face your own fears.
If you’re afraid of large crowds, you know for certain that you’re going to be very anxious when you’re in one. There will be no surprises. You know your heart will start racing and that it will be very difficult for you to focus or to be in the present moment.
So, instead of associating all of the symptoms of anxiety (e.g. racing heartbeat, increased body temperature, muscle tension, trembling, etc.) with pain, simply see such sensations for what they truly are: transitory experiences which have a half-life that is far shorter than what you may like to admit. You’re encouraged to observe these sensations as just sensations. That’s it. You need not unnecessarily attribute any subjective baggage to these sensations, they just are what they are.