When we feel anxious about something, the most natural human response is to avoid it. We know that if we stay away, we’ll feel safe, for now. But avoidance not only maintains anxiety, it makes it worse over time.
Your brain learns like a scientist. Each time it has an experience, positive or negative, it clocks that as evidence for its beliefs. If you avoid the thing you fear, you never give yourself the chance to build up evidence in your mind that you can get through it and survive. Just telling your brain that something is safe is not enough. You must experience it.
When we learn to face the things that make us feel afraid, we get stronger. When we do that day after day, over time we develop a sense of growth. Imagine if, over the next five years, you made your decisions based on the life you want to have, instead of fear.
Here is a list of some common safety behaviours that ease anxiety in the moment, but keep us stuck in the long term:
Whether it be in a social situation, the supermarket or a confined space, when anxiety hits we have the urge to get out of there as quickly as possible.
2. Anxious avoidance
The moment you say no to that invitation to avoid the social situation or opt for food deliveries to avoid the anxious feeling you get in the supermarket, you are rewarded with instant relief. “Phew. I don’t have to face that feeling today”.
But the longer you stay away from something, the more the fear seems to grow. Then the day comes that you need to face it once again and it now feels overwhelming.
3. Compensatory strategies
This can happen after experiencing a high anxiety state. For example, someone with a fear of contamination or sickness may wash excessively after being in a hospital setting.
Also called sensitisation, this is when we rehearse and anticipate various worst-case scenarios that may occur in a feared situation. We are often convinced that it is helping because it will protect us if we are prepared, but it can lead to hyper-vigilance and excessive worry without constructive planning, which leads to increased anxiety.
5. Reassurance seeking
In moments of anxiety and doubt we may ask for reassurance from a loved one that everything will be OK. It is hard to see a loved one in distress, so they are often more than willing to use reassurance to help calm the anxiety.
But over time that instant relief can become addictive and we develop a dependency on that other person.
We may need almost constant reassurance, or feel unable to leave the house without being accompanied by the person who makes us feel safe, which can weigh heavily on a relationship.
6. Safety behaviours
We can also come to rely on things that we associate with safety if we don’t trust ourselves to be able to cope when anxiety hits. We may feel unable to go anywhere without ‘just in case’ medications, or we take a mobile phone everywhere because looking down at it enables us to avoid conversation at social events.
Easing the anxiety
It’s a natural response to avoid something that makes us feel anxious, but avoidance will only maintain the anxiety in the long term.
If you want to feel less anxious about something, do it as often as you can. Use the skills to help you sit with the anxiety and it will reduce over time. When we learn to face the things that make us feel afraid, we get stronger.
When we do that day after day, over time we develop a sense of growth. Then slowly but surely, the things you do most often become your comfort zone.