Being trapped between the desire to get out and embrace the world and the overwhelming need to hide from it can be an exasperating experience. For me, it the word impotence is the one that best fits the situation. Knowing I have the strength, knowledge, intelligence and bravado to face any situation, but feeling anxious to the point of vomiting at the idea of simply opening a door if I don’t know what is on the other side of it fosters a feeling of impotence and despair.
The natural inclination for most of us can be to avoid situations that trigger anxiety. We find ways to complete tasks without putting ourselves in a situation that makes us feel unnecessarily fearful or make excuses as to why we cannot do them at all. For me it is taking a step back to let someone else open a door rather than going through it first, creating excuses as to why I am unable to attend that party I sounded so excited to go to three weeks ago or suddenly discovering ways to be helpful in a social situation rather than actually talking to people. Oh look, the drinks are low and I need to go and refill the chip bowls…
When we treat our anxiety by completely avoiding the situations that trigger panic symptoms, are we really helping ourselves or are we self-sabotaging?
The problem with avoidance is that it not only does it not solve anything, but it fuels the problem by creating an image of the issue that is much more alarming and insurmountable than it started out as. The more we avoid a situation, the harder it is to face next time it occurs.
Vicious cycle, really.
Many, many years ago, my beautiful friend Eileen told me about her friend, Sybil. Both Eileen and Sybil worked on the buses in England in a time where men considered themselves to be paying a compliment by slapping a woman on the arse and lewd comments were banter, not verbal harassment. Sybil was incredibly shy, and to work on the buses you needed a strong personality to stand up to the drunks and bums, as well as all manner of testosterone and ignorance fuelled misogyny.
For Sybil to survive in a world that demanded more moxie than she felt she had to give, she created a shield that gave her the courage to behave in the manner she needed for work. A buffer she could drop and just be herself when she got home but served its purpose when needed. Sybil imagined herself a Cardboard Sybil.
Cardboard Sybil was a version of herself that she held in front of her to keep the confronting situations she went through every day at arm’s length. Cardboard Sybil was confident, strong, knew what to say in all situations and was never shy. Cardboard Sybil was the person Sybil needed to be at work. A tool to help her survive each day. A safeguard against an intimidating reality.
And while I never knew Sybil, and it would be years before I knew the reason I was constantly afraid of the world around me, this story struck a chord in me. Maybe I could create my own Cardboard Sybil to shield me from the world, to enable me to move through it without feeling the slings and arrows that cut me deeply each day.
To this day I have carried my Cardboard Sybil around with me. Unlike Sybil however, I did not project qualities I needed but did not possess on my shield. I projected things I loved about me but was too scared to show. My natural confidence, irreverence, humour and strength. A two-dimensional version of all the empowered and brave elements of my personality that the anxiety tries to keep locked in a chest made of fear of judgement and rejection. This simple mental exercise helps me imagine a buffer between me and the world, allowing me to walk through it with the confidence (albeit shaky, some days) that any situation that is not physically threatening cannot penetrate my shield of courage.
To begin with, it took practice. Holding an imaginary shield can be terrifying in a very real battle. But as I flexed my fledgeling muscles, I grew to a place where instinct and experience took over.
While I certainly hope you can take my experience of creating a way to navigate the onslaught of false messages hurled at you in triggering situations, there is no one-size-fits-all method to facing, and triumphing over, anxiety. With a try before you buy attitude, the following is a list of ideas that have all been of benefit to us that you can try on for size and keep what works for you, modify what doesn’t fit quite right and discard techniques that feel as awkward as the itchy jumper your grandma one knitted for you for Christmas when you were nine years old.
Avoid avoidance by acting quickly
Ever over-thought a situation and ended up psyching yourself out of a situation that, in reality, should not have been as confronting as it ended up being? Yeah, me too. I used to do it all the time. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. As long as you are not facing large decisions with lasting implications, try making your decisions before the count of five. If moving forward into a busy crowd or making a phone call are provoking anxiety symptoms, stop thinking and start doing. Don’t give yourself the time to turn a molehill into a mountain. Sometimes you just have to jump.
I am terrified of heights but love a good adventure. Caught between the two, standing on the edge of a bungee platform, I had heard the call of “One, two, three, BUNGEE!” several times. There was no way I was leaving that platform without having jumped, but being goaded into it was not helping. I asked him to stop and let me do this in my own time. I closed my eyes, stopped thinking about the ‘what if’s’, switched off and let myself fall.
I fell. The cord caught me. Now, visualising my skills and experience as the cord, I switch off and fall into everyday situations. I stop thinking, start doing and let my wealth of experience and ability to laugh at myself catch me.
Use gradual exposure to take baby steps towards the thing you are avoiding
Gradual exposure is a useful technique that systematically desensitises you to the situation you are afraid of. It is a technique that we make use of regularly. In our house, it is not just me that suffers from anxiety, our sixteen-year-old daughter has a debilitating anxiety disorder. Two years ago we were at the point that she could not leave the house at all.
Before all of this happened, we used to stop off at the local service station when we would go out together or as a family to grab a drink. She missed being able to do that. With that intrinsic motivation, we started out by practicing walking down the stairs together. Once she could do that, we progressed to walking down the stairs and opening the door. Then walking down the stairs, opening the door and getting in the car. Walking down the stairs, opening the door, getting in the car and backing out of the driveway. Eventually, we got to the service station and practiced putting her hand on the door handle. Progressing to opening the car door. To getting out of the car. All the way to walking into the store. Sometimes it took weeks to progress through each stage. But each step forward was a triumph and was celebrated as such. Using this gradual exposure technique to break down stressful situations into manageable bites, she can now jump in the car with me, go to the servo and walk inside and get a drink with barely a second thought.
Stop avoiding anxiety-provoking situations by planning ahead
If the day ahead is causing you to want to hide at the back of your wardrobe (yes, I’ve actually wanted to do that on a regular basis) because the sheer number of things you have to do is overwhelming, try writing down everything you have to do and all the steps you need to take to accomplish each task. A variation on the theme of gradual exposure, each task will be broken down into manageable steps to focus on without having to think about the rest of the day ahead. Steer clear of all or nothing thinking and view each step taken as an accomplishment. Celebrate your successes no matter how small. There can be pride in completing half a task, as long as you are meeting your anxiety head on and you keep on trying every day.
Consider what you are really avoiding
Are you avoiding a situation that actually has the potential to hurt you or are you avoiding anxiety itself? Sit and think about what it is that you are trying to avoid. Is it the anxiety you are going to feel in that situation or is there a valid reason not to go to the thing, do the thing or say the thing? Chances are, it is an anxiety attack brought on by the situation you are avoiding rather than anything threatening in the situation itself. Learning deep breathing techniques can help you to walk into those anxiety-provoking situations once you realise it is anxiety itself you are trying to avoid.
In the end, when we use avoidance as a way to control our anxiety, what we are really doing is letting anxiety control us instead.