How to teach your anxiety - and why teaching it is such an important part of recovery:
Anxiety is a very distinct part of the mind, with the specific job of keeping us safe from perils and threats. Anxiety is such a friend in many ways. Think of times where you’ve done things reflexively, without even thinking, that have kept you safe? For example, slamming on the car brakes as a deer runs into the road; Turning and running from a dark, shadowy figure in a bad part of town; Running away from the school bully (or suddenly going in to fight mode). Yes, we need anxiety. But when anxiety is wide awake in our minds, misfiring, giving you misinformation about the world and what/what is not safe, creating lots of uncomfortable and bewildering symptoms and thoughts, one of the best things to do is to take your anxiety out into the world and show it how safe things truly are.
In psychology, this is called “Exposure and Response prevention”. And it is powerful, powerful medicine for anxiety. Most people need help with this, from a therapist, and/or from excellent resources on anxiety, like Dr. Claire Weekes’ books and audios. Without the support, coaching, learning and encouragement from a therapist or the proper resources, exposure and response prevention is possible, but can be shaky. This is because the anxious person has been believing anxiety’s bluffs for so long, and as a result has lost so much confidence, and as a result of that, has lost decisiveness
“Where do I take my anxiety out? How long do I have to stay? What if I fail? What if it makes me feel worse?” All of these concerns are normal under the circumstances. But with the right help, exposure and response prevention is fantastic treatment, and a key part of the road to complete recovery.
Teaching your anxiety this way looks something like this:
Anxiety: No no no no you CANNOT go to the party tonight. You’ll have a panic attack. See? You’re getting dizzy and nauseous just thinking about it. Stay in. Much safer.
You: I’ve made up my mind. We’re going.
Anxiety: DANGER! Here’s some adrenaline so you can run from this terrible situation you’re about to head into!
You: Hmmm. Interesting tingling in my hands. Hmmm. I just might vomit. Hmmmm room spinning. Anxiety, you do the most interesting things. It’s a party. A normal thing. Free food. That person I really like will be there. We’re going to the party. It’s not dangerous. But good try.
Off to the party….
Anxiety: DOUBLE DANGER! People! You’ll say the wrong thing! You’ll shake and tremble and everyone will see! You’ll start to have chest pain and OMG it might be anxiety but it might be A HEART ATTACK. Oh my goodness, Oh my goodness, Oh my goodness, Oh my goodness. Here’s some more adrenaline! Oh NO You can't BREATHE! Will you RUN NOW?!
You: Hmmm adrenaline. Makes me feel like I might pass out. Oh anxiety, sorry but we’re doing this. Let me try to slow my breathing. 5 seconds in, 7 seconds out. Hey, here comes that sweet girl! I’m going to talk to her….
ANXIETY: (speechless, eyes popping)
You: (talks to the acquaintance. Manages a few shaky, awkward words. Walks away)
ANXIETY: (SPEECHLESS, tapping in to the very last of the adrenaline reserves. Throwing out just a little bit because most of it is depleted)
You: Ha ha- we made it! See? Wow I need the wall to hold me up but WOW we made it. Let’s take some food for the road. We can go now.
ANXIETY: FINALLY!!! This is life or death here! Why didn’t you follow my instructions? Quick let’s go!
You: Good job anxiety. Yeah I’m going to barf now, and I can barely feel my body, and I’m so tired, but - we made it!
Anxiety: I don’t get it. We didn’t die. You were awful with that conversation- what a catastrophe. I’m never letting you talk to anyone again. She must be thinking what a whacko you are. And you almost passed out. I told you! Don’t worry I’ll keep you safe next time. I’ll double down. I still don’t get it though- we didn’t die? Huh. We didn’t die…. How could that be? I thought for sure we’d die…
You: Yeah, I don’t know when exactly, but we’re going out again soon. Maybe it’ll be harder, maybe easier, I don’t know. But we ARE going out again.
Anxiety: Fine. Have it your way. But I’m going to keep you up all night fretting about the things that might happen that next time….Maybe then you’ll start to see it my way…
To be clear, the EXPOSURE in this situation is going to the party, despite Anxiety's pleas that you avoid it. RESPONSE PREVENTION is doing the opposite of what anxiety tells you. Anxiety is telling you not to go, so you go. At the party, Anxiety is telling you you your response should be to RUN- but you stay. You prevent the response. "We're going. We're staying. I'm talking to that girl"- all of this is RESPONSE PREVENTION.
Repeated exposure and response prevention continues to confuse and challenge anxiety. After many, many episodes of practice, ANXIETY LEARNS. And recovery comes. Over time, Anxiety sees the party/restaurant/conversation, even the physical symptoms IT produces as non-threatening. Because you have shown anxiety that while things don’t necessarily go perfectly, the things it fears aren’t real life or death threats, warranting a life-or-death anxiety response.
What are the things that you avoid? Are you working with a therapist who is coaching you sufficiently to expose yourself to those things you fear? Have you learned from the right resources how potent this approach/treatment is and how to implement it?
You have the courage. It is within all of us. Courageous and wise thoughts are always there- just drowned out and buried by anxiety’s loud, and very convincing, yelling. And the anxious person has the MOST courage of all. It has been built up by days, weeks, months, years of just facing the day. With the right support and help, anyone can take their anxiety out and start to teach it. Anxiety is always watching. When you defy it, and do the normal things it’s screaming at you to avoid, over time, it LEARNS.