Could Feeling Anxious Be The Answer To Feeling Less Anxious?


4 Tips To Help You Challenge Your Anxiety


Anxiety isn’t pleasant, which is why we instinctively do what we can to avoid it. We avoid difficult conversations by saying yes to people when we’d really rather say no, we procrastinate over stressful jobs at work, and we put off complex decisions. But avoidance is a double-edged sword. It might help you to feel less stressed in the short-term, but it ultimately makes your anxiety worse.

Who's winning? You or your anxiety?

Who’s winning, you or your anxiety?

Avoidance will offer short-term relief, but it will also keep your anxiety around and possibly add to your anxiety longer-term. The longer you wait to face your fears, the bigger they seem, and as the list of things you’re avoiding grows, so does your anxiety. As counterintuitive as it seems, what will ultimately help you to feel less anxious is deliberately challenging your anxiety by doing the opposite of what it’s telling you to do. Facing your fears will make you feel worse initially, but there’s a strong body of research to show it will also help you to feel less anxious longer-term.

Exposure therapy has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. It involves gradually exposing yourself to feared situations, the idea being that repeated exposure helps to lessen anxiety by re-training the brain. When we feel anxious in a situation, we learn by association to fear that situation. For the most part this process helps to keep us safe, but there are times when our brain gets it wrong and we learn by mistake to fear situations that are safe. Public speaking, lifts, planes, saying no – none of these situations are dangerous, yet they’re situations that trigger anxiety because our heads have misjudged them as situations we should fear.

Avoidance might help you to feel less anxious in the short-term, but it also prevents you from learning that the situations you fear are actually safe. Repeated exposure to a feared situation on the other hand offers the opportunity to unlearn learned associations between anxiety and safe situations to break the anxious cycle. Essentially, challenging your anxiety will help you to recalibrate your fear response so you don’t feel anxious unnecessarily.

The best way to overcome your anxiety is to challenge it by doing the opposite of what it’s telling you to do, but to make your practice effective, keep these tips in mind:

Tip #1: Grade Your Practice

If the idea of challenging your anxiety head on feels too overwhelming, start with smaller challenges. If your anxiety makes you want to avoid presenting to groups of people at work for example and volunteering for a presentation despite your anxiety feels like too big a step, find smaller ways to practice speaking in groups. Say hello to groups of colleagues in the office, speak up in small meetings, and when you start to feel more comfortable, then tackle a presentation. If saying no to others is what drives your anxiety, think about who you’d feel least anxious saying no to and start your practice here. As you feel more comfortable, increase the degree of difficulty of the task by practicing saying no to people you feel more anxious saying no to.

Tip #2: Plan Your Practice

For your efforts to be effective, you’ll need to practice challenging your anxiety on a regular basis. Remember you’re trying to re-train your brain and learning requires repetition. How much repetition is needed will depend on the severity and duration of your anxiety, but as a general rule try to find a way to challenging your anxiety at least once or twice per week. Less frequent practice won’t hurt, but it won’t necessarily help you to lessen your anxiety either. Commit to regular practice so your efforts translate into change.

Tip #3: Practice + Repeat

If you’ve been avoiding facing your fears for years, it will take more than one practice to re-train your brain to not feel anxious. To really be effective, make sure you practice the same step more than once. Keep practicing the same step over and over until it’s starts to feel boring, then when it does, increase the degree of difficulty of your practice and move on to the next step in your planned practice.

Tip #4: Take Your Time

Challenging your anxiety will make you anxious which means you’ll be tempted to rush through your practice to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Anything you do to challenge your anxiety is positive, but if you’re able to continue your practice until your anxiety starts to reduce, your progress will likely be faster. Say for example your fear relates to lifts. Jumping in a lift and going from the ground to the second floor will still challenge your anxiety, but going up and down in the lift until your anxiety starts to lessen slightly will help to break your conditioned association between lifts and anxiety. As much as it feels like it won’t, if you can take a few deep breaths and hang in there, your anxiety will pass. Hanging in there until it does will strengthen your practice.

Challenging your anxiety can sometimes be harder than it seems. If your progress plateaus or you’re finding it hard to get started, consider challenging your anxiety in conjunction with a clinical psychologist.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists. She enjoys working with children, adolescents, and adults, and specialises in anxiety, depression, postnatal depression, eating disorders, self-harm, and challenging behaviour.


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