When faced with a situation that gives us anxiety, one of the most common responses is to do what we can to avoid or get out of that situation. For example, a socially anxious person might try to think of ways to get out of having to go to a party. A person who gets nervous around doctors may try to postpone their annual checkup. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. We see the source of anxiety as a threat, so we try to run away from it. Unfortunately, while we may gain short-term relief, the anxiety only remains dormant for a short period and becomes worse in the long-run.
The Cycle of Anxiety
The diagram below illustrates how avoidance leads to an endless cycle of anxiety.
The challenge with avoidance as a coping mechanism is that it often results in short-term anxiety relief, reinforcing the feeling that avoidance is a good way to reduce anxiety. However, as with just about any anxiety-inducing situation, it’s never a once in a lifetime situation. There will always be another social interaction waiting for us or another health issue that forces us to the doctor’s office. To make things worse, each time we engage in avoidance, the anxiety becomes a bigger hurdle to overcome.
The challenge then is that we are too anxious to engage in behaviors that will alleviate our anxiety, but our only other option, avoidance, increases anxiety. It is a vicious cycle.
With that, the question arises – what can we do?
Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety
The solution is simple, but unsurprisingly, it’s not easy. At the end of the day, the advice that any expert can give you boils down to one thing – you have to deal with the anxiety. You can’t avoid it. You have to approach it head-on. Often when we are anxious about something, we catastrophize and assume that the worst will happen. We might consciously even be aware that we are thinking irrationally, but it doesn’t reduce the anxiety or lessen the symptoms. What works is to face it. Challenge your negative assumptions and anxious thoughts.
That being said, you can approach this strategically to reduce the short-term stress (it won’t entirely go away, though):
- Challenge your irrational thoughts. Negative and irrational thoughts feed the cycle of anxiety. Try to identify the cognitive distortions that you are guilty of and challenge each assumption. For example, you might say to yourself, “I have never given a good presentation before. I have always been terrible with public speaking.” In this instance, I would write this negative thought on a piece of paper, identify the cognitive distortion associated with it (i.e., overgeneralization), and then write a statement that challenges this claim. In this case, I would try to identify a few instances where I did have success with public speaking or did give a good presentation.
- Start slow. If your social anxiety doesn’t allow you to speak with a cashier, the odds are that going to a large party full of strangers is not a good starting point. Instead, start with small things. When you order pizza, speak with someone on the phone rather than ordering online. Speak with a cashier rather than using self-checkout.
- Break down the anxiety-inducing situation into smaller and more manageable tasks. If you are avoiding going to the doctor, step one is just to book your appointment. You can always cancel, so there’s no harm in scheduling it and adding it to your calendar. Start with that.
- Rip it off like a band-aid. While some benefit from starting small and slow, others may benefit from the opposite – tackle the anxiety-inducing situation head-on. Get it over with. Don’t let your mind talk you out of it. Just do it. Now.
- Control what you can control to increase the likelihood of success. In my childhood, I had some negative experiences going to the dentist. As a result, it’s always been a challenge to get myself to go. As an adult, though, I now have more control over my dental health and dentist. So the thing I did to help increase the likelihood of success was to thoroughly research a dentist with positive reviews. The odds are that they have good reviews for a reason. Nothing is a certainty, but I have increased the probability of having a positive experience.
- Use the energy from short-term successes to address other areas of your anxiety. If you tackle an anxiety-inducing situation, and it results in a positive outcome, use the temporary positive feelings to keep tackling your anxiety. For example, if you struggle with public speaking but just gave a presentation that you feel great about, try to book and immediately have your next speaking engagement. If you are afraid of doctors and dentists and just managed to overcome your fear by going to the doctor, book your dentist visit and go as soon as possible. Ride the high and positive feelings from one encounter to address another.
The reality is that if you struggle with anxiety, it will always be there to some degree. However, with the proper techniques, it can become dormant indefinitely, and that’s the goal. Healthy behaviors that reduce anxiety operate in the same way that muscles do. The more you exercise and the more you practice, the stronger the muscles become. Stop exercising, however, and they become weaker. Similarly, with anxiety, you need to keep engaging in non-avoidance based behaviors to keep the anxiety away. Stop practicing, and it can return.