Anxiety: we all have it. In small doses, anxiety protects us and keeps us safe, whether by making sure we meet a deadline at work or look both ways before stepping into traffic. However, when anxiety starts to negatively impact our day-to-day lives and prevents us from doing things that we need or want to do, it may be time to intervene.
There are many different kinds of anxiety, from fear of spiders to fear of certain social situations. Some people are just worriers about everything. But in every single case of anxiety there are two main factors that perpetuate it and keep it from getting better. One is our thoughts. People with anxiety tend to overestimate the likelihood that something terrible will happen, to overestimate how terrible it will be, and to underestimate their ability to cope with it. In order to manage our anxious thoughts, we must challenge their veracity and try to look at them as logically as possible (more on that in a future blog post).
The second factor is avoidance. People with anxiety avoid the things that make them anxious. This is a very effective coping strategy in the short term. If you avoid the thing that makes you anxious, you don’t have to feel anxiety. Problem solved! Unfortunately, anxious avoidance can cause problems in people’s lives. Imagine that you have social anxiety and are very uncomfortable making small talk. This would certainly affect your social life, as you are unlikely to go to parties and events, and could also affect your work life if you work in an office or have to interact with clients. People may wrongly assume that you don’t like them or are standoffish. And in the long-term, avoidance makes anxiety worse, as people who avoid situations that make them anxious never get the opportunity to see if their anxious thoughts are accurate or not.
In order to combat avoidance, as I explain to my clients, one has to expose themselves to anxiety-provoking situations and see what happens. In therapy, we do this in a gradual way, starting with situations that provoke only minor anxiety, and working our way up to harder situations. Often, though, I have clients tell me that they do “expose” themselves to their anxiety all the time. In social anxiety, for example, a client might tell me that they have to make small talk all the time and find it excruciating, but that it never gets better. If my theory is correct, they argue, what gives?
This is where safety behaviours come into play. Safety behaviours are the little things we do to avoid when we can’t get out of a situation. Say, for example, that you have to give a presentation at work and are feeling very anxious about it but don’t have a way to get out of it. Safety behaviours in such a situation might include not making eye contact with the audience, obsessively rehearsing, gripping the lectern tightly so that people couldn’t see your hands shaking, wearing dark clothing so that others cannot see you sweat, etc. The problem with safety behaviours is that they prevent the learning that needs to take place. If all goes okay with the presentation, the person does not conclude that the situation isn’t actually dangerous. Rather, they think, “If I hadn’t [rehearsed so much, worn dark clothing, etc.], it would have been a disaster.”
Dropping safety behaviours in these situations is critical to getting past the anxiety. Some people are able to identify their safety behaviours and figure out how to drop them on their own. If this is too difficult, a psychologist’s support can make all the difference.