The Biggest Mistake You’re Making When Dealing With Anxiety
Close your eyes. Now, imagine a scenario that scares the CRAP out of you. Something that makes you feel soooo nervous and on edge, you wanna jump out of your own skin. Maybe it’s giving a sales pitch at work. Maybe it’s taking the subway. Or maybe it’s talking to someone you don’t know at a party.
Whatever it is, I can almost guarantee that I know EXACTLY how you deal with those nervous, anxious feelings.
You avoid them.
Sometimes, you avoid the WHOLE situation, like by saying, “Hell nah!” to any job that requires public speaking. Sometimes, you mentally escape the situation, like by poppin’ a pill. And sometimes you just distract yourself, like by counting down from 100.
Whatever escape route you take, they allllll amount to the same thing: never staying present among your “triggers” and never actually feeeeling your thoughts, sensations and emotions in those moments.
My Story of Battling and Overcoming Anxiety
How do I know all this? Because for over ten years, I did the exact same thing.
Anytime I was gonna face one of my anxiety “triggers” – like taking a test or getting on an airplane – I took a pill, just like my doctors and therapists always told me to. Wala! Problem solved, right?
Not so fast…
Sure, taking a pill before going somewhere or doing something that made me hella nervous let me “function.” It turned my brain down enough that I could push through the experience. At the time, I even thought numbing myself up for class and saying “no” to any vacation that required a plane ticket was an act of “self-care” and “positive thinking.”
But relying on my own kind of “happy pills” to get through uncomfortable situations never really resolved what caused me to feel sooo crazy nervous in the first place. It never resolved my fears over what would happen if I failed the test or what would happen if I got on the plane. In fact, it left me trapped in a CONSTANT cycle of anxiety. Not to mention, it made me get addicted to the pills that gave me some small relief.
So if you’re avoiding every single thing that makes you anxious…you’re trapped in that cycle, too.
Why Avoiding Your Anxiety Is the Worst Thing You Can Do To Heal
Now, I know what you may be thinking: “Caitlin, what the heck are you talking about? Taking my meds, or avoiding the people and places that make me feel anxious is the only way I stay sane and balanced. It’s how I take care of myself. Avoidance makes me LESS anxious, not MORE!”
And that’s true…in the short term.
But NOT in the long term.
Here’s why: just think of when you’re doing something or going somewhere that makes you so nervous, you can hardly breathe. What really causes those feelings? A thought. A negative thought about how that situation will go, like “Kyle is ALWAYS looking for a reason to fire me. If I mess up this investment analysis, I am sooooo screwed!” Or a memory of how this scenario went badly in the past, like “I can’t stop thinking about that time I FROZE for two freakin’ minutes during that project pitch last year. If I do that again, I’ll just die!” And once your brain has that thought, it wants to save you from going through the pain you’re thinking will happen. So it sends sensations through your body that make you wanna freeze or run away.
And in that moment, running away or avoiding those feelings by taking a pill or distracting yourself with “positive thinking” sounds like a pretty damn good strategy, right? But when you immediately push those feelings away or run away from the situation, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to have a new thought or a new experience.
Exactly What Happens When You Avoid Your Fears and Triggers
Take public speaking, for example. If you’d rather tightrope across a skyscraper than give a presentation at work, and you just avoid EVERY public speaking opportunity that comes your way, you’ll never have the chance to:
- Surprise yourself at how good you are at it
- Talk yourself kindly through it
- Get positive feedback and helpful tips from it
Basically, you’ll never grow out of that fear of public speaking. Instead, you’ll constantly be telling your brain, “You’re right. That situation is a MAJOR danger zone that I’m not strong enough or smart enough or whatever enough to handle. I need to escape!” So your brain goes, “OK! Glad my classification was right!” and that thought – that you can’t handle this situation – becomes hardwired into your brain.
And once your brain connects that event or activity with some “RED ALERT SAFETY EMERGENCY,” your body does too. Just think of the last time you were feeling crazzzzy nervous and overwhelmed. What was happening in your body? Did your face get red? Did your hands start to sweat and shake? That physical reaction actually starts in your mind! Just like happy thoughts release serotonin (AKA the “happy hormone”), negative thoughts let loose chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, which make you physically feel anxious. And those physical symptoms just make you have even more anxious thoughts!
But here’s the worst part about avoiding your anxiety: the more you say “no” to public speaking or flying on an airplane or going on a blind date, the more you confirm how “scary” that situation is – which just makes your brain’s and body’s hardwiring get even stronger. That’s why things that may have been a little scary when you were younger can seem freakin’ TERRIFYING as you get older and avoid that trigger more.
Which is why RIGHT NOW is the perfect time to learn how to stop avoiding your “triggers” and start facing your fears head-on…and why I’m sharing everything I learned from my own journey of overcoming anxiety to help!
The Real “Secret” to Overcoming Anxiety
So if avoidance is the number-one mistake people make when trying to overcome anxiety…what’s a girl supposed to do to ACTUALLY kick anxiety’s ass?
To put it simply: Be present and just allow whatever is happening, whatever is real.
Let yourself feel whatever’s going on in your experience of that triggering event or activity. Say “yes” to that blind date, knowing that you’re gonna feel sooo nervous, you’ll wanna puke right before he picks you up. And when those worried and panic feelings emerge, don’t try to avoid them or escape them or push them to the side. Allow yourself to really feeeeeeel everything…
…and do so without ANY judgement or criticism. It’s easy to get mad at yourself for “freaking out” when other people can go on blind dates or give presentations without even breaking a sweat. I know that I told myself for YEARS, “You’re such a loser, Caitlin. Why can’t you just get on the damn plane?!?” But when you see a trigger and your central nervous system causes your anxiety to spike, it’s only doing what it’s designed to do in you and alll the other animals in the world. Just think of dogs or babies. Whenever they feel threatened, they bark or scream to the high heavens! And that’s exactly what’s going on in your body: you’re feeling threatened. And so, naturally, your body is freakin’ out, and you want to run away!
But running away from those emotions and those triggers won’t actually change how you feel about that situation, or how your body reacts to it on a biochemical level. The only thing that can make a difference is being present in those feelings!
What Being Present With Your Anxiety Really Looks Like
For example, just think about the last time you were uuuuber nervous about giving some big presentation. You’re walking up to the podium, and you feel your hands start to sweat and your heart start to race and your mind fills with thoughts like: “Oh my gosh, I can’t handle this. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna sound like an idiot in front of all these people. No one’s gonna like me after this.”
But instead of trying to avoid those thoughts – or avoiding the presentation altogether by never signing up! – you mentally address them in the same voice of self-compassion I’m always talking about. You show yourself love and acceptance with thoughts like, “I’m feeling butterflies in my stomach. Ok, I accept that. It’s a natural part of public speaking, even if I don’t love it.” And you keep doing this, over and over, with all of your thoughts, from “I’m worried about this, but that’s OK” to “OK, I’m remembering the last time I fucked up my speech, and I allow and accept that.”
What’s so magical about this approach?
By allowing and accepting, you disarm those fearful thoughts and sensations.
You’re telling your body: “Ok, I hear the scared messages you’re sending me – and you’re allowed to feel however you want. But I’ve got a hunch that we’re strong enough to have a better experience this time around.” And in the same way that dogs or babies will stop screaming once you give them love and attention and acceptance, your central nervous system will calm the F down if you acknowledge and accept the heck out of those scared feelings.
Plus, just because you’re allowing yourself to feel sweaty and nervous and crazy jittery before that big presentation doesn’t mean you have to like those feelings.
And just because you’re having some negative thoughts about how your date will be an epic fail just like the last blind dates you went on doesn’t mean you have to BELIEVE that will actually happen.
But by choosing to accept and allow those feelings and stay present in that super scary moment over and over and over…you give your brain the chance to reclassify that experience. The more presentations you give and dates you go on and plane trips you take, the more your brain realizes, “OK…this isn’t the emergency I thought I was. So I’m gonna stop sending those panic signals.”
What Happens When You Start Staying Present with Your Anxiety Triggers
Think of this process like the six months of sleeping in a new place. On the first night, you hear EVERY sound that’s there – the crickets, the clock, the cars, the air conditioner, whatever. Maybe those sounds even keep you up, because your nervous systems is sooo alert to the new sounds that it hasn’t yet decided are safe to be around.
But, eventually, you stop noticing the sounds – not because they’ve stopped, but because you’ve safely experienced the sounds enough times that your brain has decided they must not cause any harm. And when your brain decides something is safe, it no longer sends those chemicals through the body that keep you hyper-alert or anxious.
The exact same thing can happen with your anxiety triggers. The more you stay present with them, the more your brain realizes they are not life-threatening to your survival. So when those triggers do come up, your brain doesn’t feel any need to send any of those scary SOS chemicals through your body. And you can take that subway ride or give that presentation without feeling your heart race or your hands start to sweat right before!
So How The Heck Do You Start Accepting Your Anxiety?!?
Now, I know first-hand that “allowing and accepting” is easier said than done. The first time I stepped on airplane without popping a pill beforehand, I almost jumped right back onto the tarmac! And it took me a hellll of a lot of work and time to realize it was safe to fail a test or let go of control for a flight or confront allll of my fears, as long as let myself experience those feelings imperfectly and just be with them.
But that’s why I’m writing this post: to make facing your fears waaaaay easier for you than it was for me! And one of my BIGGEST recommendations for how to start shifting your mindset around anxiety is to start a mindfulness meditation practice. After all, the entire goal of this kind of meditation is allowing and accepting whatever experience you’re having, without feeling the need to follow or control a particular thought or sensation. So mindfulness meditation can be one easy way to start simply “being” with your feelings, instead of trying to control them or only feel the “right” ones.
For even more guided support, though, you can check out my six-week course, Radiant Confidence! In it, I share alllll the dirty details about how to approach the things that make you feel small and trapped by fear because you don’t think you’re good enough, smart enough, whatever enough to handle them. Plus, Radiant Confidence teaches you my most powerful techniques for overcoming these fears – in mind and body! – through acceptance and allowance. To learn more about Radiant Confidence or to start freeing yourself from your fears today, click here.
My Final Message to You About Overcoming Anxiety and Facing Your Fears
It’s really easy to want to look the other way when it comes to facing our fears.
After all, anxiety attacks – and the situations that cause them – are freakin’ SCARY! And if your childhood is anything like mine, you grew up believing that you needed to be perfect and always in control to be successful…and what I’m asking you to do in this post is the exact opposite: to allow your vulnerability.
But the “popular” or “accepted” way is not always the “right” way. And I hope this post has reminded you that, when it comes to coping with anxiety, YOU have the power to choose which way you wanna go in life.
Do you wanna rely on one short-term “fix” after the next and never be able to chase your biggest dreams ‘cause you think you “can’t handle” some of the things you’ll encounter along the way?
Or do you wanna be a mindful BADASS who isn’t afraid to face her fears and feeeeel those hella scary emotions – because she knows that’s what will give her long-term relief?
Ten years ago, I chose the second option. Just a few weeks ago, I took a 15-hour flight from New York to India for a dream vacation with my husband – no pills necessary. And, every single day, I give my past self a biiiiig thank you for choosing a life of love and acceptance over avoidance and fear.
What’s one fear that you’ve avoided for waaaaay too long? Tell me in the comments!