Do you tend to be fearful or suffer from anxiety? It’s really important to know this about yourself, and deal with it appropriately.
Fear and anxiety are like kidnappers that hold you captive. They hold you back from the full, free life you could be living. The stranglehold on your life will typically get worse over time, if left unchecked.
The good news is that there are simple things you can do to face your fears. Small acts of bravery will actually rewire your brain.
You can become a much less anxious person. It’s key to understand how your brain reacts to the things that frighten you. You can then change your habitual behaviors to help your brain reduce its baseline levels of anxiety. I’ve written previously on how to calm your fearful brain, as well as how to manage change-related fears. Today, we’ll focus on avoidance and exposure.
Don’t Be a Victim of Fearing Fear Itself
When you get down to the root of recurrent anxiety, anxious people fear the feeling of fear. The scariest part of anxiety is the way you feel when something makes you really anxious. It can be terrifying. This leads to avoidance, which then leads to more avoidance. This ultimately leads to a progressively smaller, more limited life.
I know this well, because I’ve suffered from various forms of mild to moderate anxiety throughout my life. I’ve learned to manage it better, but I’m that person who prefers to avoid scary things (heights, certain situations, certain risks). I have recently decided to stop avoiding, as much as I possibly can.
Avoidance is a bad strategy for your brain’s fear center. When you feel fear and run away or avoid, you miss the chance to “habituate” or adapt your amygdala (fear center) to the thing you’re afraid of.
You can teach your amygdala that it doesn’t need to be afraid of something. Think of how you would reassure a child who is convinced there are monsters under the bed. That terrified child might not believe you if you just tell them: “You shouldn’t be scared, there is nothing there”.
If you prove it to them instead, using their own positive experience, they’ll be much more likely to change their belief and let go of that fear entirely.
There aren’t monsters under the bed. And most of the things we are afraid of will never happen. Most of the things that cause us anxiety aren’t going to ever hurt us. What will hurt us, is living an ever-smaller life because we think we can’t handle things in it.
How Facing Your Fears Calms Down Your Brain
I don’t like glass elevators. The other day I had to take one. It helps when there are people with me, who I would prefer to appear “normal” around.
This was the case, so I muttered something about not liking glass elevators but got in. I stood as far as I could from the glass, with my back to the glass, and focused on breathing and getting through it.
I took the same elevator again a few days later and hardly thought of it, it got easier each time.
Why? How did this change?
My amygdala (fear center) learned with experience that this wasn’t actually a threat. So, it stopped reacting as if there was something dangerous going on.
I learned that I could handle it, too. The self-confidence that you when you successfully navigate an anxiety-provoking situation is significant, and increases the probability that you will be willing to face your fears again. You know you’ll be ok, that you can do it. Oh how freeing and wonderful that is!
It changes your brain’s physiology to face your fears, especially in doses you can handle without getting completely overwhelmed. This glass elevator didn’t go up that high, so it was manageable, but I still didn’t want to be in it, at first.
Avoiding Things That Cause Anxiety Teaches Your Brain to be More Afraid
If I had chickened out, I would have taught my brain that fear, anxiety and avoidance is the right reaction to this “threat”, and it would have been worse the next time. Phobia experts know this to be true.
I’ve used a really simple situation, but this concept applies to all kinds of situations. I’ve gotten much less afraid of difficult conversations. I used to try to avoid them as a rule, but that just made them scarier and made me have even less confidence in my ability to handle them with success.
I have a great mentor who forces me to stay in the game when I want to run, and it has completely changed my perception, confidence and levels of anxiety in this area (and many others areas of life).
Face your fears whenever you can. Notice the powerful urge to avoid that comes out of your anxiety, and don’t give in to it.
In most situations, it is worse for you and your life to avoid what you are afraid of instead of facing it.
Taking those small, positive, steady steps to banish your fear will do wonders to calm down your brain and your life.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali Haas 2018