If you struggle to cope with anxiety, I guarantee you have developed patterns of avoidance to minimize feelings of distress. The current prevalence of trigger warnings accompanying TV shows, live performances, and social media posts may make avoidance appear to be an appropriate strategy. But protecting yourself from potential triggering content or situations will only heighten your anxiety, make it harder to tolerate in the long run, and seriously affect your enjoyment of life.
I am not suggesting a head-first plunge from the high board into the deep end of the anxiety pool as a means of overcoming trauma or unpleasant feelings. You can start at the shallow end, dip a toe in, and then ease in slowly, if the gradual approach suits you better. Ultimately, though, you have to get wet.
Minimizing avoidance is the rationale behind Exposure and Response-Prevention treatment, the primary evidence-based behavioral treatment for OCD and other anxiety-driven syndromes. There is even a protocol called Prolonged Exposure used to treat PTSD symptoms stemming from serious traumatic events such as combat. Any type of exposure treatment involves seeking out triggers and learning to tolerate the discomfort they provoke (or, in the case of Prolonged Exposure for PTSD, reliving the trauma over and over by visualizing it repeatedly).
For debilitating anxiety or trauma, you should undertake exposure exercises only with the support and guidance of a qualified professional. But if you see yourself opting out of situations that simply make you uncomfortable, such as social events, driving, or even shopping at a different grocery store, you can find opportunities to push yourself toward the discomfort every day.
Whenever I catch myself finding excuses not to engage in an activity that makes me nervous, I try to practice what I preach and do it anyway.
In the fall I organized a group of neighbors to play Pickleball. We were all beginners, equally clumsy and clueless, and it was fun. But then an injury sidelined me. I didn’t play again for four months, until a few weeks ago, when I was invited to join a group of regular players. Most of them play daily. They are at a level far above mine, and they are very competitive.
Despite considerable trepidation, I forced myself to go. I was embarrassed by my lack of skill and felt myself transported back to middle school, when I was the last to be picked for the team in whatever sport we were playing. I am not exaggerating when I say I felt close to tears.
I really wanted to make an excuse never to return. Which is exactly why I forced myself to go back the next week, and then again a few days later.
I am still the weakest link but my skills have improved. More important, I am proud I didn’t let my feelings of awkwardness and discomfort get the better of me. I may or may not keep playing with the group, but if I choose to stop or look for other, less intense Pickleball partners, I can be confident I am not letting anxiety drive my decision.
So get out there. Force yourself to do whatever your anxious brain is telling you to avoid. Don’t let it boss you around. You will be glad you pushed back and stopped letting anxiety control you.
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