When you are in danger, your body undergoes a powerful fight-or-flight response. It’s like having a lesser superpower readily available to you, me, and animals everywhere.
Your pounding heart quickly pumps oxygen throughout your muscles, enhancing your body’s strength and speed. At the same time, your attention becomes laser-focused on the source of danger while your mind is flooded with rapid-fire survival strategies.
This superpower is a real life saver—WHEN there is a real chance of danger. If you are lost in a jungle and being stalked by a hungry tiger that has decided that you are what’s for dinner, your fight-or-flight bodily response gives you the best chance of avoiding being devoured.
In such situations, it is beneficial that every fiber of your being is dedicated to avoiding that predator—and you would best heed your body’s warnings and quickly run the other direction when you hear the hungry tiger roar.
But what if the hungry tiger is just a figment of your imagination?
When the tiger is really just your brain misinterpreting a harmless situation as dangerous (Being called on in class, asking someone on a date, or enduring a turbulent flight) you are dealing with anxiety—not an emergency.
If the best strategy for dealing with true danger is to fight or flee, what should you do when your fear is just an illusion?
In this case you should do the opposite of what you feel in that moment—instead of evading the “hungry tiger” you should run towards the roar.
If anxiety is scaring you with thoughts of death, doom, and gloom and your body is feeling panicked you should actually invite those thoughts and sensations to be there—with your permission.
Let’s take social anxiety as an example. The social anxiety beast roars:
- Don’t volunteer to talk at the meeting!
- Don’t go to the party!
- Don’t call up Susan and ask her to meet for coffee!
- Don’t you dare speak up for yourself!
If you run from the roar—avoid doing those things that are important to you due to anxiety—then the imaginary tiger wins while you lose. Avoidance leads to continued anxiety while you miss out!
So, when the tiger is real, run away from the roar—but when the tiger is made out of anxiety then run towards the roar!
Don’t argue with the anxiety, it is a debate that, in the moment, you cannot win. Instead, acknowledge the presence of roar and keep moving forward towards talking at the meeting, going to the party, calling up Susan, and speaking up for yourself. Then notice that you are still alive, body and mind intact. You have now learned that the tiger did not hurt you and you are free to stroll freely along the social jungle—undeterred by roaring, snarling, or mental growling.
The nature of the roar is different for different people. It might be social situation, heights, panic attacks, public bathrooms, and so on. Whatever it is, running towards the roar is the best way to run towards your freedom.
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.