Anxiety’s Seductive Side

As much as you might want to think otherwise, deep down you know that the best way to get over a fear is to face it. There might be different approaches to facing a fear, but the bottom line is that the fear won’t budge if you don’t confront it (i.e. exposure with response prevention—ERP).

This is a straightforward solution that is incredibly difficult at times to implement. And, while people might be grateful that such a powerful and effective treatment is available, no one WANTS to do ERP because it can be very uncomfortable to confront a fear, even though they do want the benefits that ERP brings.

When you have an anxiety disorder, Anxiety behaves as if you were in mortal danger when, in fact, danger is incredibly unlikely (how many people each year are killed by poodles, blood tests, elevators, or touching their trash can?). When you are faced with the object of your fear, Anxiety goes into emergency panic mode. If someone is phobic of dogs, for example, and an unleashed German Shepard strolls up to them, Anxiety is likely to shout, “GET AWAY! WATCH OUT FOR THOSE FANGS! YOU’RE ABOUT TO BE KILLED AND EATEN!” If you think about your own fear, you can probably relate.

There is another side to Anxiety, however, a calmer, more seductive side that tries to get you to avoid facing your feared situations through gentle persuasion instead of shouting warnings.

  • “Anyone would avoid that.”
  • “Let’s get home where it’s safe and comfortable.”
  • “You can give in to your compulsions just this one little time.”
  • “You’ve improved enough already.”
  • “You’re therapist doesn’t know what he/she’s talking about.”
  • “Other times you overreacted, but this time it is really dangerous.”
  • “Why should you have to do exposure therapy, you don’t have a problem.”
  • “You can do your exposures later.”
  • “You’re feeling down. Why don’t you take the day off of ERP.”
  • “You’re just too fragile to handle this. It is in your best interests to avoid your fear.”
  • “Just don’t think about it. Maybe the problem will go away on its own. Let’s watch TV instead of doing ERP.”

Here, Anxiety poses as your friend and trusted ally. It tries to convince you to go the easy, comfortable route. And, since you really don’t want to feel the discomfort involved in facing your fear, Anxiety’s persuasions are especially enticing.

I am reminded of poor Charlie Brown and his desperate longing to kick the football that his “friend” Lucy holds on the ground for him to kick. He wants nothing more than to finally kick that ball and be the neighborhood hero! He gets a running start and dashes towards the ball. At the last second Lucy moves the ball and Charlie Brown kicks the air and tumbles backward, hurt and humiliated, yet again. “I’m sorry, Charlie Brown,” she says contritely, “I won’t move the ball this time. This time you’re really going to get to kick it!” Charlie Brown so desperately wants to kick that ball that he makes the decision to race towards it. However, the decision is based on emotion and not reason and when he charges the ball Lucy again removes it at the last moment, sending Charlie Brown tumbling backwards even more humiliated.

Charlie Brown, walk away from the game, dude, she’ll never let you kick the ball! You’re falling into her trap each and every time!

When Anxiety holds out that ball for you (avoidance, safety behaviors, demands for perfection, absolute certainty, and never-ending comfort) and promises that your life will be better if you just run after the ball, will you try, yet again, to kick it—hoping that this time Anxiety will let you win? Or will you ignore Lucy’s promises and finally quit playing her game?

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.