We all know that feeling, the increased heart rate, the sweaty palms, the nervous tension in our stomach. From time to time, we all suffer from anxiety. Not necessarily clinical anxiety, but anxiety nonetheless.
For many of us, it is this state of fear, which can prohibit us from achieving our most important goals in life. Perhaps we seek a promotion at work, but anxiety prevents us from confronting our boss about that pay rise. Maybe we avoid going to our best friends wedding, because we’re too nervous about standing up to give that important speech. All too often, anxiety acts as an invisible barrier, preventing us from getting to where it is, we want to go the most.
The cycle of anxiety.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how all of our habits, consist of three key components. The cue, the routine and the reward. In the case of unhealthy eating for example, the cue might take the form of the boredom one experiences, when watching mindless Television in the evening. The routine, would be the behaviour itself, the physical process of actually getting up from the sofa, heading into the kitchen and finding some sugary treat to snack upon. Finally, the reward, would be the temporary but immediate relief of boredom, such snacking provides.
So, what has all this got to do with anxiety? Well, when we think about the cycle of anxiety, it is remarkably similar in structure, to any other habit, we might develop in our day-to-day lives. To give an example, let’s take a common fear shared by many; public speaking.
At some point in your life, you may have developed a fear of public speaking. Now, whenever you find yourself confronted with some situation, where you actually have to speak out in front of others, you experience this crippling state of anxiety. Suppose you are invited to deliver a big presentation at work, the dread such a prospect fills you with, serves as the cue. The first stage of this vicious cycle.
This state of anxiety, the rapid heart rate, the moist palms, causes you to create some excuse, some seemingly plausible reason for avoiding the feared situation. Perhaps you tell yourself that you can’t give that big presentation at work, because you know that your colleague, who is actually a lot more knowledgeable on the subject, would much prefer the opportunity and thus they should be the one to give to talk. This act of finding some excuse not to confront your fears, serves as the routine stage of the anxiety cycle.
But here’s the thing. Whenever we run away from some unpleasant situation in life, whether it’s giving a talk at our best friends wedding or approaching that cute girl at the bar, this only serves to strengthen our anxieties. How? Via the process of what psychologists refer to as negative reinforcement.
You see, whenever we think about doing something that scares of us, this induces a number of unpleasant physical symptoms; the rapid heart rate, the sweaty hands, the fluttering in our stomachs, collectively we label these symptoms as the state of feeling anxious. When we therefore create excuse not to do the very thing that makes us so nervous, what happens? These unpleasant feelings go away. In other words, our avoidance has been negatively reinforced. The act of running away from a scary situation, has been rewarded by the relief in tension it gave us. However, in the long-term, our fear has simply been magnified.
Breaking old patterns.
So, as we have seen, the anxiety cycle is composed of three key stages. So how then, do we break this vicious pattern? The answer is simple, although simple doesn’t necessarily equate to being easy. The only real way to destroy our anxieties, is to go out and do the very things, that scare us the most.
I have talked briefly about the physical aspects of anxiety, but there is also a key cognitive element. Often our deepest fears are fueled by what clinical psychologists refer to as automatic negative thoughts. These are beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world around us, that pop into our heads automatically and in some cases, can go unchallenged for many years, the longer they go unchallenged, the more strongly these beliefs are held.
For example, for a long time I was petrified over the prospect of taking driving lessons. I desperately wanted to learn to drive, but every time I thought about actually booking a lesson, I was gripped by anxiety. This fear stemmed from a central belief I held, that I would be a totally, incompetent driver. There was little evidence to actually support this belief, but it went unchallenged and thus, served to add fuel to my anxieties about driving.
We all have these beliefs, somebody who suffers from social anxiety, may hold the view that they are generally boring and unlikable. Another, who suffers from a fear of public speaking, may believe they have an unusual and embarrassing accent. Whilst these beliefs often have little evidence to attest to their validity, they typically go unchallenged and thus, undefeated.
The scientific approach to destroying our anxieties.
When tackling anxiety, a common technique used by Cognitive Behavioural Therapists, is to treat our negative beliefs, as if they were scientific hypotheses, which must be subject to trial and experimentation. In other words, we must head out into the world and test whether or not our beliefs about ourselves, are actually valid.
Returning to the example of my fear over learning to drive, the only way to destroy the belief that I would be an incompetent driver, was to actually go and get behind the wheel. And so that’s exactly what I did. Yes, I made some silly mistakes as all learners do, I stalled my car more times than I could count, but ultimately I realized that what I had been most afraid to do, was actually not so bad after all.
You see, when we go out into the world and subject our negative beliefs to rigorous testing, we are forced to replace such views with more plausible, realistic beliefs about reality. The only way to overcome your fear of public speaking is to actually stand up in public and well, speak. It might not go brilliantly, you might even say or do something embarrassing, but at the end of the day it won’t be the terrible and humiliating experience you have built it up to be in your mind.
Replacing old habits with new routines.
So, let’s take a look at how actually facing our fears, disrupts the patterns of anxiety, we all too often fall into. For a second, let’s imagine you suffer from terrible social anxiety and thus, often avoid going to social events in which there will be many people. Your old pattern might have looked something like this:
Cue: An invite to a large party would induce a high anxiety state, typically the result of some strongly held, negative belief (“I am a boring person”).
Routine: Some plausibly sounding excuse is made not to attend such an event (“I can’t go to the party, I have too much work to do”).
Reward: An immediate relief in unpleasant symptoms of anxiety, acts as negative reinforcement for such avoidance behaviours.
However, by changing your behavioural patterns and actually facing your fears, a new and healthier pattern might emerge, which might look something like this.
Cue: The cue itself doesn’t change. The prospect of attending a large party would still induce a strong feeling of anxiety.
Routine: What does change however, is your response to this cue. Now, rather than avoiding environments that induce social anxiety, you would plunge yourself into such situations.
Reward: Whilst attending a large party might at first be met with anxiety, over the course of the evening your anxiety would slowly dissipate and you would eventually find yourself entering a more relaxed state.
Do you see the key change? Where-as previously, the reduction in anxiety stemmed from avoiding unpleasant situations, this same reduction in anxiety is now the result of a different cue, actually tackling your fears head on. In a nutshell, we are now made to feel more relaxed and thus rewarded, as a result of tackling situations that induce anxiety, rather than avoiding them.
Gradually expose yourself.
At this point, you may be thinking that you have some fear, that is simply too large, to tackle head on straight away. Perhaps there is some situation which evokes too much anxiety, for you to be able to cope with all in one go. If this is the case, we can draw on another therapeutic technique referred to as systematic desensitization. What this essentially involves, is taking whatever it is that makes you anxious and creating a gradual hierarchy; a series of steps to get you from where you are now, to where it is you eventually want to be.
To illustrate this point, let’s suppose you find it incredibly difficult to talk to strangers, particularly those of the opposite sex. This might be having a negative effect on your dating life. Well, what we could do is to set an ideal end goal such as “I would like to feel confident in approaching someone I find attractive” and setting a number of slow, gradual steps to get there. So a hierarchy might look something like;
Step one: Saying hello to a stranger.
Step two: Asking a stranger for the time or for directions.
Step three: Making a small conversation with someone you don’t know.
Step four: Making a small conversation, with a member of the opposite sex.
Step five: Making a small conversation, and offering a compliment to someone you find attractive.
And so on. As you can see, we don’t necessarily have to jump right into a situation that fills us with dread. Rather, we can create a slow and gradual transition so that we’re constantly expanding the edges of our comfort zone. Of course each step will make us a little anxious, that’s the whole point, but at no point do we feel so petrified that we simply can’t cope with the situation in which we find ourselves.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten”.
I believe the above quote, which has been attributed to a variety of authors, is particularly applicable here. If we always do what makes us comfortable, we can never grow, we can never become more than what we are now. The only way to destroy our anxieties is by facing them, even if it is, one step at a time.
Some final remarks.
For many of us, anxiety can be a horrible demon in which we have to live with, for it can prevent us from achieving so many of the things, we want most out of life. Perhaps we avoid going to our best friends wedding because we can’t bare the thought of giving a speech in front of such a large crowd. Maybe we avoid asking out our crush on a date, because we can’t stand the thought of being rejected. We may go years without getting that pay rise we know we deserve, because we don’t think we have what it takes, to finally confront our boss.
I hope I have convinced you in this article, that there is only one way to conquer such fears and unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the answer you wanted to hear. There is no magic pill or self-help book that can alleviate the fears that dominate your life. The only way to destroy the cycle is to go out into the world and to do the very things that you’ve always told yourself, you’re too afraid to do. So go and give that presentation, start going to the gym, ask out that cute girl, do whatever it is, that scares you the most.
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