Imagine yourself strapped into a small plane, ascending into the clouds en route to your first skydiving jump. As the plane tilts its nose upward, your stomach drops, and you can’t quite tell if it’s an effect of the lift or your nerves. You talk to your tandem skydiving instructor, hoping for reassurance, but then you notice your palms and forehead begin to sweat. The thud-thud-thud of your heartbeat is echoing in your ears, and you’re certain everyone around you can hear it.
As you reach altitude and prepare for the jump, you start to panic. Your anxiety is higher than anything you’ve ever experienced. It takes all your strength to just look out the plane at the ground below. Your instructor informs you that this is the last chance you have to back out. You have one of two choices – you can retreat back into the plane, giving up on this experience you were so excited about when your feet were flat on the ground. Or you can jump.
What do you do next?
Paralysis that hinders the decision to move forward or retreat is a common phenomenon for those who struggle with anxiety. Often, we learn to retreat back into what is safe, avoiding the situations that make us feel anxious or worried. In particular, if you struggle with phobias, an anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or even compulsive thoughts associated with sex and love addiction, you may have seen yourself retreat into destructive patterns that work in the short-term to relieve anxiety. But these do not solve the problem, and in choosing them, we miss opportunities for growth.
How do we overcome it?
Have you ever bought a goldfish at a pet shop or store? The seller hands you your fish in a plastic bag filled with water and instructs you to place the tied bag into the fishbowl or aquarium before releasing the fish into the water. Why do they do this? It is meant to help the fish get used to the temperature of the water – or habituate.
Just like that goldfish in the tank, we need to learn to habituate to our anxiety. Habituation involves walking through an experience of anxiety without avoiding or running away from the feared event. In essence, it is proving to yourself that you can survive the anxiety without turning to the ways you’ve coped in the past that only serve to increase your anxiety next time you face the same situation.
In the goldfish example, habituation occurs as the temperature of the water in the bag slowly adjusts, degree by degree, to the temperature of the water in the aquarium. With anxiety, the process is similar. Let’s say you feel anxious about public speaking. The first time you have to speak in public, your anxiety might be off the charts. But when you survive that event, the second time you’re asked to speak in public you’ll likely feel slightly less nervous. Once you’ve spoken in public five, ten, or fifty times, it won’t even faze you to do it again. Your anxiety levels have adjusted, degree by degree, to allow you to feel more at ease.
Katie d’Ath, a psychologist who works with obsessive-compulsive disorders, illustrates this visually in a helpful format in the video below. (I would highly recommend other videos in her series on obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
Typically our first response to anxiety is to do whatever it takes to make the anxiety go away. And it works in the short-term: otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. But the short-term fix of distraction or avoidance won’t satisfy the long-term desire to release the anxiety.
How can we begin the process of habituation?
Before starting this process, build up additional coping strategies for anxiety where you can calm your body’s response enough to approach the process in a grounded and rational place. Techniques such as breathing exercises, mindfulness, and positive self-talk can be a great first line of defense against anxiety.
Once you’re in a place where you’re ready to work through anxiety, it is time to practice sitting in your anxiety. First, this involves listening to what your body is saying. Pay attention to the sensations of anxiety in your body. What do they feel like? Where does your anxiety feel most present? What quality does that anxiety have in your body?
Next, notice the thoughts that are running through your mind. What are the fears you’re having? What’s the worst-case scenario playing out in your mind? What are the beliefs about yourself or others that are contributing to the anxiety?
Pay attention to what other emotions are present besides anxiety. Often fear is linked with anxiety, but other emotions, such as hurt, anger, or sadness can influence the course your anxiety takes. Read through an emotions chart and identify what you’re feeling.
Then begin to question the racing thoughts in your mind: where are they coming from? Do they come from a past fear or experience of embarrassment you had? Are they about the future and what could happen if you take a risk? How valid are they? Is this something that is possible, or is it an irrational thought based on a cognitive distortion?
Finally, there comes a decision point – how will I choose to deal with my anxiety? I can choose to run away and avoid in order to experience that immediate relief. Or I can choose to run to the things I know that are good for me – greater awareness, support from my loved ones, and self-care. Ultimately, the foundational way we can conquer anxiety is to believe that we can survive it and act on that belief.
I hope you choose to jump into the anxiety and fear and find that you will make it out on the other side.
Are you exhausted by your constant sense of anxiety? Do you feel tied down by the paralysis and avoidance that work in tandem with anxiety? Do you feel hopeless about making it out? At Restored Hope, I would love to help you experience freedom from your struggles with anxiety and depression. My Ann Arbor counseling office is currently taking clients, and I’d love to talk with you about setting up your first appointment. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk today.