Some amount of fear is a normal part of being human. For thousands of years, philosophers, religious figures and psychologists have attempted to help us cope better with anxiety. Today I saw a bumper sticker that said “If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention”. A friend wrote to me “I get worried when things go too well, it means life is there something bad coming”. Life can be scary for everyone at times, but many of us find ourselves worrying needlessly and being anxious about things that are ultimately just a small bump in the road.
Anxiety becomes “disordered” when we over rely on avoidance as a coping mechanism. Avoidance and distraction can be a useful part of anyone’s celebrity sex tapes coping skills regimen. What is useful in the short term, can be harmful when used as a life stategy.
For example, a client that I worked with was very unhappy because she felt so isolated. She longed for the sharing that comes with deep friendships. After a recent job transfer, it became very difficult to make friends in her new city. She declined invitations from colleagues because she was so worried that she would “make a fool of herself in a social situation”. Her fear of doing something that would embarrass herself grew over time as she avoided any situation in which she potentially could potentially look bad. Avoiding parties and gatherings helped her to feel calm in moment, but over time her confidence eroded. The anxiety increased as she felt less and less able to participate in everyday social interactions.
How does this happen? Why is avoidance a poor long term tactic? Our brains learn what is safe and what is a real threat through trial and error. If we survive and master something scary, usually our sense of competence and safetly increase. This is part of how we are designed to adapt and adjust to our environments. For example, a small child might initially be scared to ride a horse. After a few attempts however, he or she is likely to me much more comfortable. We even have the colloquial expression to “get right back on the horse” if we have been thrown. This phrase speaks to the common understanding that we all have about how we go about mastering anxiety and fear.