There’s a lot of anxiety going around right now. Fear of following the COVID-19 protocols, worry about catching germs, and apprehension about what the future holds. A normal reaction to anxiety is to avoid that which we are afraid of. Afraid of bears? Don’t go hiking in Kananaskis! Afraid of elevators? Take the stairs! Afraid of flying? Drive to your vacation destination! Avoidance is a normal reaction to fear, but it is not necessarily healthy. In fact, escape and avoidance work to STRENGTHEN anxiety.
That may sound strange, because when we escape or avoid that which we are fearful of, it feels BETTER. We feel more relaxed, in control, and calm. How can this make our anxiety worse when it feels so much better? Well, this short-term relief is so rewarding that it REINFORCES/rewards our decision to escape or avoid the feared stressor the next time it rears its ugly head. In other words, the next time we are faced with walking in the deep woods, getting up to a 37th floor suite, or planning a vacation, we are even more likely to avoid or escape the thing we fear (for the behaviorists out there, this is called negative reinforcement). And, unfortunately, the more we avoid or escape, the more fearful we become of the stressor.
The value of FACING OUR FEARS is counter-intuitive until you put it that way. In fact, facing our fears – exposing ourselves to the stressor that frightens us – allows us to develop coping strategies to reduce our anxiety and know that we can survive and thrive in the face of adversity! in the face of bears, elevators, and airplanes.
When it comes to COVID-19, what do you fear? Getting sick? Being out in public? Loneliness? Losing a job? It’s important to keep ourselves safe in whatever ways we can control. If you’re going hiking in Kananaskis, you will take some bear spray and some bear bells, make lots of noise, and know your route. Same with COVID – it’s important to follow protocols for wearing masks, sanitizing hands, keeping social distance, and staying home whenever possible. I’m certainly not recommending that people consider facing their fears by completely exposing themselves to the danger that is legitimately posed by these activities.
What I am proposing is using strategies to prevent the fear from paralyzing us. In the case of COVID-19, it would be too easy to stop venturing out, start blaming ourselves, or others, and live as if the worst has already happened. The fear will grow and overwhelm. Rather, put on that mask, sanitize those hands, keep 6m from others, look fear in the eye and say “I am strong and resilient. I get through tough times”. And, putting one foot in front of the other, go for that walk outside, pick up those groceries from the store, connect with friends online, borrow a movie from the library. Look to the future and know that whatever happens, you will get through it, just like you’ve gotten through all the other tough times in your life. You have the strength, the wisdom, and the courage to move through fear and arrive on the other side victorious.
You can do it!
1. Therapist Aid has a great resource explaining the cycle of anxiety, attached, and available online: https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/cycle-of-anxiety
2. A great you tube video illustrating that what we feed, grows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzKryaN44ss
3. Will Smith’s description of how he managed to move through fear to bliss: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFIB05LGtMs
4. Trails to Wellness website (https://trailstowellness.org/materials/resources/exposure) includes a bunch of worksheets, role-play, activities and videos to understand and practice exposing yourself to fears.