What I Want to Tell People Who Aren't 'Brave Enough' to Face Their Anxiety
People with anxiety are often told to be brave. And strong. They hear slogans like, “Feel the fear and do it anyway,” or “Success lies outside your comfort zone.”
Decades ago, I recovered from severe agoraphobia — the fear of being away from the safety of my home. I later went on to have a successful career and log over one million air miles. Today I am a psychotherapist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders
And I am probably one of the least brave people in the world.
I’m the guy who wades into the shallow end of the pool, not the person who jumps off the high diving board. While my friends are going to see scary thrillers at the movies, I’m watching cartoons. And when we visited St. Louis and my wife wanted to ride to the top of the Gateway Arch, I was more than happy to wave at her from the ground.
Which leads me to an important point I want to make for people who struggle with anxiety: bravery isn’t always your friend.
Take my agoraphobia, for example. For several years of my young adult life, I lived in a narrow world circumscribed by a radius of a few blocks. Outside that zone, my fear of having a panic attack and falling apart too often became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once in a great, great while, I would sum up the courage to go outside of my comfort zone; I’d ride in the car to somewhere that was an hour away, or grit my teeth and go to some social event. And then I’d wonder why I was no less phobic the next day.
Finally, I started working with a very creative therapist who had a brilliant idea – don’t go too far outside your comfort zone. Instead, do lots of structured practice, be fully present wherever I am, and see how things go from week to week. I’ll never forget her literally yelling at me the first week of exposure practice, “You aren’t listening to me! You went too far and got anxious again. Don’t do that next time!”
It felt really lame at first. My wife would follow me in her car as I drove down an unfamiliar road, a quarter-mile at a time. Soon I could go a half-mile. Then three-quarters of a mile. Big whoop.
But then one day, it was like a switch had flipped. After comfortably going two miles, I felt like going five. And then, to the nearest big city, 70 miles away. And soon, I was booking plane tickets to visit my parents, who by then, had moved across the country to Arizona — which at first, could have well been the moon. That trip went surprisingly well, and before long I was in a suit, on a jet, flying by myself to the west coast for a job interview. After just a few months of therapy I was free, and have been free ever since.
Nowadays, as a therapist, I see the same thing over and over again. People try to get rid of their fears on their own and can’t. But when we slow down the pace, and they learn to be fully present with small doses of the situations they fear, two amazing things happen. First, they never get too uncomfortable, and second, they eventually lose their fears. No bravery required.
Now, I have nothing against people who feel that learning to be brave, or getting used to strong exposures, is the way to go. It does work for some people. But it also goes sideways sometimes. In my belief, it is probably not the right strategy for a real, live chicken such as myself.
There is some precedent for my approach. For example, Nik Wallenda, the guy who walks on a tightrope across places like the Grand Canyon, will practice over and over on a tightrope that is just a few feet of the ground, learning his skills in a safe and comfortable environment.
So are you one of those people who feels like “aren’t brave enough” to change your life? Perhaps you just need to take smaller steps. Be OK with who you are, and try my prescription for a good life: feel the fear and don’t do it anyway.
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