- It is important to understand the thoughts and expectations that undergird anxiety in order to develop a game plan for fighting back.
- To push back against anxiety effectively, one needs to take some calculated risks and ignore catastrophic thoughts.
- Ultimately, people need experiences that powerfully demonstrate that their fears are groundless. This builds confidence.
By Ben Eckstein, LCSW and P. Forrest Talley, Ph.D.
Anxiety doesn’t always make sense. It’s frustrating. Try as we might to understand and make sense of our discomfort, anxiety sometimes does not add up. It’s inconsistent. It’s random. It defies logic.
Why do we clutch our armrests when our plane goes through a patch of turbulence, even though we’ve been told over and over again that planes are safer than driving? Why do we feel anxious when we go into a meeting, knowing that the odds of actually facing physical danger are incredibly slim? Why do we feel scared of sharks in the ocean, when we know we’re more likely to be struck by lightning?
Well, the answer is simple: When it comes to conquering fear, what we know doesn’t save the day. Our ability to intellectually argue against the anxiety will not make it go away.
Shortly before I got married, my future father-in-law and I went skydiving. He knew that I had done it once before and recruited me to be his accomplice. This was his biggest fear and an item on his bucket list. As such, we had a photographer and videographer to document the experience.
There are some really cool pictures (and some really embarrassing ones locked in a vault somewhere). But there’s one photo that has always stood out to me: I’m falling, plane above me in the background, arms outstretched, skydiving instructor strapped to my back. My mouth is wide open, screaming, a look of sheer terror on my face; but the look on the face of the instructor is something completely different. He’s calm, almost disinterested. Probably thinking about what he’s going to have for lunch. Maybe kind of annoyed at the screaming guy strapped to him.
Here we are, both falling out of a plane, but having two very different experiences.
Intellectual Versus Experiential Knowledge
You could sit me down and tell me all of the facts about skydiving. I could absorb all of the statistics and know all of the relevant information. But that’s not going to make a difference if you throw me out of a plane. That doesn’t account for the difference between my reaction and the reaction of the professional skydiver.
The difference is experience. That instructor had jumped out of a plane hundreds of times. I’ve done it twice (which, if you were wondering, is not even close to enough to start to feel okay jumping out of a plane). I thought that I would be okay. I estimated that the risk was reasonable. I fully expected to land safely. These beliefs did not stop me from feeling scared.
The facts and statistics that we possess cannot, by themselves, change our anxiety. This doesn’t mean that it’s not useful to step back and look at our thoughts more objectively.
Certainly, there is value in noticing when our thinking is unrealistic. After all, this allows us to step back and take a more balanced, objective perspective on a situation. But by itself, it is seldom enough. Rationalizing will not change how we feel. We need experience in order to make that type of shift.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider the mechanisms that come into play when someone becomes highly anxious. Generally speaking, we start with a triggering situation that elicits an automatic thought. Using the above example, the situation could be falling out of a plane and the thought could be, “I'm going to die!" That thought activates the corresponding emotional system, which gives us a good jolt of fear or anxiety.
Triggering Event —-> Automatic Thought —> Emotional Response
We can certainly replace that thought with something like, “While it’s possible that I could die, skydiving accidents are rare. What’s more, I trust the instructor to properly use the equipment and get us to the ground safely. The most likely outcome is that I’ll be okay."
This reframe is more accurate than the initial and dramatic thought of “I'm going to die!" It also provides the sort of confidence needed to take a risk. It will not immediately cause anxiety to disappear, but it does slow the buildup of anxious emotions and thereby make it easier to do what is necessary to defeat unwarranted fear. Namely, engage in corrective experiences that recalibrate the fear system of the brain. You see, it isn’t enough just to tell oneself that everything will be okay. This has to be experienced.
A Little Bit of Theory
Inhibitory Learning Theory tells us that we have two competing constructs in our brains: fear learning and safety learning. Our brains are constantly receiving information about the world around us and making determinations about risk.
If our brain decides that we’re in danger, it will activate the fear response and we’ll feel anxious. However, if we can feed our brain enough information about safety, we can inhibit that fear response and prevent the activation of the corresponding emotional system.
Hacking the System
We can hack this system by controlling the data that our brain receives:
- We can take reasonable risks, thus showing our brains that we’re okay even without controlling all of our surroundings.
- We can ignore catastrophic thoughts, demonstrating to our brain that thoughts don’t have to be taken at their word.
- We can embrace uncertainty, allowing an opportunity to see that we can live our lives safely, even without clarity about the future.
These tools provide our brains with "corrective experiences." That is, they allow us to have experiences that confront unwarranted fears and show them to be mistaken. By having this experiential learning, our brain’s fear/safety system is recalibrated. In fact, research shows that over time these activities literally "rewire" neuronal connections within the brain.
Fromm Reichmann, a therapist who practiced in the earlier part of the last century, captured this idea perfectly when she wrote, “The patient needs an experience, not an education.”
This is true not only in psychotherapy but in life more generally. You can only learn to play the guitar, prepare a gourmet meal, ride a bicycle, or hit a home run by practicing the skills that each of these achievements requires.
Reading about bicycle riding will not give you the skill to balance on a bike. You need to actually get on a bike and pedal. Sure, you’ll likely get a few scraps before the act of bicycling becomes second nature. Such is life. But you’ll never learn to ride by sitting in a chair reading about bicycles.
The same is true of anxiety. Thinking how foolish your fears are will not remove the anxiety. But engaging in activities that make you frightened and finding out that the world has not come to an end will provide you with a sense of confidence that replaces fear. Even when that involves jumping out of an airplane at 14,000 feet.