The Cure For Anxiety: Facing Your Fears
Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people seek psychotherapy in Melbourne. The good news is that anxiety is also one of the most treatable conditions people can have in therapy. The bad news is that it often involves doing the one thing that people who have anxiety don’t want to do; exposing themselves to their fears.
When Can Anxiety Occur?
Anxiety is a normal part of being human. We all have the ability to look into the future and predict terrible things that might happen, especially when it involves something important to us like a job interview or a loved one undergoing surgery.
Anxiety occurs all of the time, but things are slightly different for people with anxiety disorders. They find it very difficult to escape the constant thinking about things that could go wrong, to the point that it can be incredibly debilitating.
It’s important to understand the type of anxiety you have before trying to cure it, because each type of anxiety disorder revolves around a different kind of fear. Speaking to a therapist can help you to better understand your anxiety before fixing it.
Is Anxiety Curable?
Anxiety is very much a treatable condition, however it is significantly challenging to do so. Therapists over time have struggled with helping people to overcome their anxiety, and after decades of trial and error, realized that the key ingredient is exposure.
See, people who experience anxiety are masters at avoiding it. They go out of their way to make sure they don’t experience anxiety, and have developed all kinds of strategies and coping mechanisms to distract themselves or pretend it’s not there.
This is understandable because anxiety is incredibly uncomfortable and difficult to deal with. However, all of these things work together to make the anxiety worse in the long run. While in the beginning it might feel like thinking positively or avoiding what makes you anxious might help, it only prolongs the anxiety and can compound it because new things begin to make you anxious.
Instead, the secret is to expose yourself to the things that you fear. This means doing the thing that you’re afraid of. Of course, it doesn't have to be all at once. A therapist can help you to slowly increase your exposure in incremental steps so your tolerance of anxiety improves over time.
Are Anxiety Treatments Effective?
According to psychologists Martin Seif and Sally Winston, there are 6 important factors to consider when treating anxiety. These can be the difference between curing the anxiety, or making it worse.
Address the Relevant Fears
One of the most common problems in treating anxiety is getting the diagnosis wrong. This might mean that you think you have a social phobia because you avoid public places, but after working on this for some time you realize you actually have panic disorder because you’re worried about having a panic attack in public. This can sometimes be because the therapist hasn’t done enough digging to uncover this underlying fear, but it can also be because people sometimes find it hard to be honest with themselves, or others, about what their fears are. And this makes complete sense, given that they’re operating from a place of fear.
Reframe anxiety as a positive learning experience
Many people dread having to face their anxiety. But it’s important to see it as a positive learning experience. The only way you can truly get a handle on your anxiety is if you face it. At the same time, you need to remember that experiencing anxiety is not a failure. The whole point of experiencing anxiety in the context of therapy is to be able to manage it better. Wanting to overcome your anxiety without exposing yourself to it is akin to trying to learn a foreign language without ever speaking a word.
Sometimes people wish to dive right into their fears head on. While this can sometimes work for some people, for most it’s too overwhelming to immediately face the thing that scares you. Instead, working with a therapist means being able to gradually improve your tolerance of anxiety through manageable steps. This can be done through using a simple 1-10 scale to track how anxious you are, and always stick to things that are in the middle range so as to keep challenging yourself, but not lead to failure, and subsequent disappointment. Remember, the goal is not to complete the task, but to be able to tolerate the anxiety as it comes up.
Exposure goes hand in hand with reducing the avoidances. As people begin to face their fears, it's common for their strategies and coping mechanisms of avoiding anxiety to escalate. So while you are working on facing your fears, you must also be mindful of the ways in which you try to avoid them as well, and recognize that this is actually prolonging the anxiety, not helping you to cure it.
It’s important to keep an eye on the time as you’re undergoing exposure. It’s common for people to do something to confront their fear, but walk away as soon as they feel a hit of anxiety. Because the goal is to improve your tolerance, you instead need to sit in the anxiety and observe your response to it. As Seif and Winston note, “exposure doesn’t make the fear go away, it just desensitizes you to it”.
Stay on the right side of the street
The last point can be a tricky concept to grasp. Many people think that exposure is about the act; that if you’re afraid of confined spaces, and you take an elevator from the ground floor to the 20th floor, the act of riding the elevator will cure the anxiety. This is incorrect. The truth is that what helps to cure anxiety is observing your internal world as you’re feeling anxious. Noticing the thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories that arise when you’re experiencing anxiety, and being able to sit with them without trying to avoid them. Along the way, you change your relationship to the anxiety itself.
Can Anxiety Cure Itself?
Many people have successfully cured their anxiety on their own by slowly exposing themselves to their fears. A good example is the group Toastmasters, where people face their fear of public speaking in a supportive environment.
What’s important to note is that this doesn’t mean the anxiety goes away all by itself without the person doing anything. The key ingredient in this case is still exposure.
Getting Help For Your Anxiety
Even though some people can cure their anxiety on their own, many people struggle to identify what their fears are, and work through them alone. Seeing a therapist can help you to overcome your anxiety. They can help you support you as you face your fears, and also help you to notice any ways in which you try to avoid your fears or distract yourself from them.
Shaun McMahon is a psychotherapist in Melbourne who works with clients struggling with anxiety. He conducts sessions both in person and online, and is currently accepting new clients. If you are interested in seeking help with your anxiety, you can arrange a FREE 15 minute consultation by clicking here.
Source: (2014) Seif, M. N., Winston, S. What Every Therapist Needs To Know About Anxiety Disorders: Key Concepts, Insights and Interventions. Routledge: London.