Action Not Avoidance: Three New Things to Learn
Learning to respond to avoidance urges with value-driven action is an important part of long-term anxiety management. Most of us recognize the potential benefits of working through anxiety to take on meaningful challenges. But as much as we hope that a commitment to action will lead to greater life satisfaction and a sense of personal control, our concerns about withstanding anxiety itself make it difficult to move toward difficult tasks like taking a flight, studying for an exam, or initiating a difficult conversation.
This is why it’s important to consider the cognitive consequences of prioritizing action over avoidance. Whenever you face discomfort to accept a meaningful challenge, you give yourself an opportunity to explore, question, and modify your beliefs about anxiety and your ability to manage it. Taking bold steps toward doing what you value, even when you happen to be anxious, promotes new learning—not through information shared by me or someone else, but through your own experience. The more you “do it anyway,” the more you’ll acquire behavioral evidence to support three new beliefs that are particularly useful for lifelong anxiety management.
Anxiety Usually Declines on Its Own
The first belief is that anxiety usually declines on its own, even if you do nothing to try to control it. This will probably be clear to you if you reflect on your personal history with anxiety-provoking, but unavoidable, challenges. For example, have you ever noticed intense anxiety when you started an activity, only to find that, with time, it declined and you felt much more relaxed? Perhaps it was a social event, a long flight, a doctor’s appointment, or a giant project with a deadline. In situations like these, anxiety often spikes right away, leading to the urge to escape; but if we hang in there, it eventually diminishes or even goes away. This response is due to the body’s inability to maintain the increased arousal that comes with threat perception. It might feel like anxiety “lasts forever,” but if we give ourselves a chance to wait it out, it usually declines significantly in thirty to sixty minutes.
If you’re skeptical about this, that’s understandable. Some people report that their anxiety doesn’t decline. A common explanation for this is the frequent use of safety behaviors to reduce the discomfort of anxiety. Suppose you started staring at your phone each time social anxiety felt too intense at a business networking event. Despite what seems like a welcome break, this behavior would interrupt the process of allowing anxiety to reach its peak and diminish naturally in a situation that truly challenges you. Sure, you might feel a temporary bit of relief while you look at your phone, but new social challenges, and the anxiety that comes along with them, appear once you return to networking.
Another safety behavior that interferes with a naturally occurring decline in anxiety is leaving a difficult situation when anxiety seems intolerable. For example, someone who feels anxious in an enclosed movie theater might leave regularly to walk around, get some air, or look for emergency exits. Although choices like these might seem useful for regrouping and feeling more relaxed in the moment, they prevent you from learning for yourself whether anxiety will decline on its own.
Anxiety Is Tolerable
A second thing you’ll learn when you “do it anyway” is that anxiety is tolerable. As uncomfortable as anxiety is, and as much as it tries to distract you from what you’d rather be doing, it’s nothing more than a harmless collection of sensations, thoughts, feelings, and urges. But I don’t want you to take my word for it. The only way to know for sure whether anxiety is truly dangerous, or nothing more than an inconvenience, is to see for yourself through direct experience. The more you “do it anyway,” the more you’ll have the opportunity to learn if this is true.
Uncertainty Is Tolerable
The third thing you’ll learn when you “do it anyway” is that uncertainty is tolerable. Your willingness to take risks and do what you value comes with the unfortunate trade-off of not being able to control or predict everything that happens. I’d love to be able to say that bad things won’t happen—that your anxiety won’t escalate or that you won’t be thrown for a loop by an unpleasant surprise; but to be realistic, the best we can hope for is a reasonable balance between preparedness and accepting uncertainty. When you make the commitment to do what matters most, despite the presence of uncertainty, you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether uncertainty is tolerable.
In sum, responding to avoidance urges with valued behavior won’t eliminate anxiety, prove to you that your fears are exaggerated, or make you see that things generally work out just fine. The reality is that when you take risks, you may feel anxious and you may experience setbacks. Accepting this is part of thinking in the realistic and useful ways we worked on in the first section of this book.
So, to recap, what does happen when you “do it anyway?” You learn that, while you engage in the behavior you value:
- Anxiety will probably decline on its own.
- Anxiety is tolerable.
- Uncertainty is tolerable.
Equipped with this knowledge, we can proceed to making a plan to “do it anyway,” which includes several elements: accepting and working through anxiety; taking gradual steps toward your long-term goals; inviting uncertainty; and testing your anxious fictions directly through behavioral experiments.
Joel Minden, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for anxiety. He is a diplomate of the Academy of Cognitive Therapies; adjunct professor in the department of psychology at California State University, Chico; and author of the blog, CBT and Me, on www.psychologytoday.com.