We all have things that make us feel anxious. Some of us feel anxious around dogs, heights, or closed spaces. We also can experience anxiety about making mistakes, what others may think of us, or how we may perform in class or at work. Anxiety can actually be a very helpful emotion at times. When there is an actual danger present, anxiety motivates us to act. For example, if there is a tiger on the loose, anxiety kicks in, and it motivates us to run to safety or fight to fend it off. Once we are safe, anxiety calms down.
Often, we are not in actual danger, and anxiety still kicks in. We can call this a false alarm. So now imagine, I am back in the same place where I saw that tiger, my anxiety is heightened, yet there is no tiger there. There is no actual danger right now. What may end up happening is that I escape the situation and now avoid going to that place because I don’t want to feel anxious. Leaving the place brings immediate relief. I may have the thought, “Phew! Now I feel better.” The problem here is that my brain then learns “this place is not safe,” “I need to avoid and leave this place in order for my anxiety to go down,” or “I cannot handle being here.” So now each time I go to this place, my anxiety gets higher, I leave the situation, and then feel relieved, and this pattern occurs over and over again. We call this the anxiety loop. This can create problems in our lives, as we are then learning that things, places, or people are dangerous even though there is no real danger. For example, let’s say someone has a fear of dogs, and any time she sees a dog approaching, she crosses the street. Each time she avoids the dog, her brain learns “Dogs are unsafe,” and “I cannot handle being around dogs!” Avoidance of the cue “dog” actually keeps the anxiety around. We therefore need to learn a different way to behave and respond when faced with the feared cue in order to break the loop.
Exposure therapy is the gold standard treatment for anxiety-based struggles. Exposure helps by having us directly confront the actual cue that makes us feel anxious, giving our brains the necessary information that, “Hey, nothing dangerous is happening! We’re okay!” Through exposure, we teach our brains the opposite of what it has been learning through avoidance.
When we experience the feared situation and see that the feared outcome did not occur, we learn that:
We are not in actual danger and the likelihood of the feared outcome happening is very low, and
Even if it does happen, I can handle it!
Anxiety goes down, and we can live a more peaceful life with the mindset of APPROACH, APPROACH, APPROACH, over avoidance.