Learning to Live with Anxiety - Part One: Avoid or Approach?

“It’s not that big of a deal.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Calm down.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

If you deal with anxiety a daily basis, then you’ve probably heard these kind of things from your friends, partners, coworkers, family — and you know they aren’t helpful. You can’t think your way out of anxiety or wish it away, and white-knuckling through it is exhausting. What other people don’t know, and what you know very well, is that anxiety doesn’t just go away. 

While you may not be able to get rid of anxiety forever, there are many ways to live with your anxiety more effectively and prevent it from getting in the way of your life and your happiness. Therapy is one way of learning these strategies, and I’m excited to share some of them with you in this series of blog posts on dealing with anxiety.

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Avoid or Approach?

One of the first things I teach clients with anxiety is that you always have a choice about what to do with your anxiety. Often, it feels like anxiety is driving the bus, like it’s in control of your emotions, your thoughts, sometimes even your behaviors — it feels impossible to do anything about it. In therapy, we work on moving anxiety out of the driver’s seat to help you take the wheel. We won’t necessarily get rid of the anxiety forever, but it will become just a passenger on the bus, maybe annoyingly expressing its opinions a little too often, but no longer making all the decisions. 

Part of learning how to move anxiety to the back of the bus is developing the ability to know when to listen to your anxiety, and when to ignore it.

When to AVOID:

Facing your fears is not always the best option. Actually, there are many times when avoiding or distracting from whatever is making you anxious is the most helpful thing you can do.

1. It’s not a good time to freak out.

Anxiety doesn’t seem to care what you might be doing in your life, your day, whether it’s 1am and you’ve been trying to fall asleep for the past two hours, whether you’re trying to enjoy a date night with your partner, or whether you have a huge project due tomorrow that you really need to focus on. Anxiety does not know the difference between “this is important” and “this is important NOW.” However, this is easy to forget, and when anxiety shows up, you are easily drawn into its hurried, urgent consideration of all the possible ways everything could go wrong. If you attend to anxiety when it’s not a good time, you could be creating more problems for yourself in the long-term, damaging your relationships, and struggling with the important stuff at school, work, or home.

2. There’s nothing you can do right now.

Many things in life are outside of your control. Anxiety has an uncanny knack at finding these things and latching onto them, giving you the illusion that we can and must find a way to impact the impossible. There are obvious ones — worrying about whether or not it will rain on your kayaking trip, when you can’t control the weather — and less obvious, like worrying whether a relationship is going to last when you cannot predict what will happen three months from now. Often, facing these anxieties does nothing but cause pain and exasperation, as your mind runs through all possible outcomes and how you might possibly prevent the negative ones.  You end up feeling even worse, filled with hopelessness and dread.

3. This is outside your window of tolerance.

This is a very helpful concept that was introduced to me by my own therapist. Our “window of tolerance” is the place where you are able to cope effectively with what is happening to you, while tolerating whatever is difficult about the situation. When something is outside this window, you feel so flooded or overwhelmed that you freeze up, become paralyzed, or take such drastic, reactive actions that you end up making things worse. When you’re outside your window of tolerance, you may feel like your brain is offline—your usual coping skills don’t work, your brain feels fried, and your thoughts are fuzzy, chaotic, or racing. When this happens, facing the anxiety just doesn’t get you anywhere productive.

Continue reading on for When to APPROACH! Or head over to Part 2 of the series, When you choose to avoid: Distract from your anxiety and get back to your life.

When to APPROACH:

If you’re like most people with anxiety, you are relieved to hear that it’s OK to distract and avoid your anxiety sometimes — and not so thrilled about the approaching thing. This is completely normal and in fact, is a functional component of anxiety — if something in life is truly dangerous or threatening, we don’t want to approach it! Unfortunately, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and other forms of anxiety disorders trick your brain into thinking that everything is dangerous or threatening, which gets in the way of getting things done and getting on with your life.

1. This is something you need to take action on.

While anxiety is often unavoidable, so is the reality that sometimes…you just need to get something done. It might be checking your bank account balance, which you’ve been avoiding because you’re worried you don’t have enough money left to cover that rent check you wrote this morning. Or getting started on a project that’s due for work by the end of the week. Maybe you haven’t made a dentist appointment in five years and you’re terrified of how bad things might be. With situations like these, if we continue to avoid, the consequences are potentially real bad. Of course, you might logically say “I know the consequences are bad, but that doesn’t help me feel any less anxious.” That’s OK. We’re not trying to make you feel less anxious right now. We’re just trying to decide whether to avoid or approach :)

2. Addressing this will actually help lower your anxiety in the long run.

Anxiety sends the message to your body that you need to get outta there, protect yourself, hide, make yourself small or quiet, respond with drastic measures and predict all catastrophes—the “flight” part of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Unfortunately, your anxiety-o-meter can be mis-calibrated for all sorts of reasons; traumatic experiences can make you hypersensitive to threat or harm, you may have won the biological lottery for a temperament and personality more vulnerable to anxious moods, or maybe you drank way too much coffee this morning. Your job is to turn on the frontal lobe (the logical, thinking part) of your brain and ask the question: is there any chance that facing this threat might actually help? If you’ve been worrying for the past week about a difficult conversation you need to have with your boss, but once you have the conversation the anxiety will stop…what does the math say on waiting another week vs. having the convo today? If you’re worried about whether you’re staying within your budget for the month but keep avoiding looking at your bank statements or tracking your spending, the only way that anxiety is going away is with approaching the information, not avoiding it. If there’s information out there—whether it’s hard facts like numbers, or interpersonal data like seeing how someone responds to you—and that information will cross one of your worries off your to-do list, it may be time to approach.

3. This is within your window of tolerance.

The “Subjective Units of Distress Scale,” or distress thermometer, can be a helpful tool for identifying when anxiety is within your window of tolerance. It helps you check in with your emotions, thoughts, and body to get a sense of how high your distress is right now — relative to your own experiences. For some people, opening a piece of mail might be a “5” on the scale; for others it might be asking someone on a date or going to your first day at a new job. The purpose of the distress scale is twofold—one, it serves as a mindfulness tool to check in with yourself and make sure you are accurately rating how anxious you are. Two, you can use it to help gradually challenge yourself to approach more difficult situations, over time. Just because your distress is a “3,” doesn’t necessarily mean you want to approach it — the other part of the tolerance window is whether you have the tools to cope at this level of distress. If you’ve just started therapy and have been avoiding your anxiety your whole life, even approaching something at a “1” can be scary and difficult.

Interested in learning more about your anxiety and creating a plan for getting your life back? We’d love to help. Contact us to set up a free phone consult to discuss options for starting individual therapy.

Coming next…

When you choose to avoid: Distract from your anxiety and get back to your life

When you choose to approach: Confront your anxiety without letting it consume you