“No pain, no gain!” is the motto of many an athlete and is also the key to coping and thriving with anxiety disorders and OCD. In other words, invest in more discomfort in the short term in order to be more comfortable in the future!
But I am already very uncomfortable! I just want to get rid of my anxiety!
These are words I hear frequently in response to the notion of a short-term investment in increased discomfort. At the root of this is the belief that discomfort is somehow wrong or abnormal to feel.
So what’s the problem with this?
It comes down to this basic observation: Life—for all of us—is a mixed bag of comforts and discomforts. No one escapes pain long.
Our emotional and physical states are constantly in flux. We feel better some times and worse at other times. Our experience of comfort and discomfort changes throughout the day. A pleasant phone conversation with a friend might be soothing, while the traffic jam on the highway on the way to work might increase our feelings of stress or worry. It’s like the ancient notion of Yin and Yang—life holds pain and pleasure, good and bad, anxiety and calm.
Many people adapt to this through selective attention. They pay more attention to the pleasant moments in life while tuning down the attention they place on normal discomforts. Yes, that conversation with the boss was unpleasant, but not catastrophic, and now I’m focused on the delicious Pad Thai noodles at dinner. They experience the normal discomforts, process it, and move on with life.
Anxiety disorders and OCD are often maintained by the sufferer’s pursuit of short-term comfort. For example:
- Repeatedly washing your hands until it feels right
- Rushing to numb out with alcohol, cheesecake, or Netflix
- Avoiding situations that invite anxiety
This causes two problems:
- You do not learn that a catastrophic outcome would not have occurred were you to confront your fear directly.
- The more you avoid discomfort, the weaker your discomfort-tolerance muscles become. Then, smaller and smaller things feel more and more distressing.
Instead of running from discomfort, begin to seek it out.
This offers the following benefits:
- Facing your fear allows you to learn that catastrophe is not imminent. Anxiety is a false perception of danger. You learn that it is false through experience rather than avoidance.
- Just like building muscles at the gym you build anxiety-tolerance muscles by seeking out and softly embracing your fear.
But I am feeling fearful already. Aren’t I facing my fear?
Most people with anxiety disorders or OCD do feel anxious in the face of certain internal or external triggers, but they are not really facing their fear. To the contrary, they are focused on doing whatever they can to fight or resist the anxiety—that is very different from facing it.
Facing your fear means gently feeling your fear without escaping into avoidance or safety behaviors. When you run from your fear, your fear-tolerance muscles shrink. The goal of facing your fear is to stare it down until IT shrinks—or at least you see that it no longer holds power over you.
With repeated exposures, you may notice that the anxiety symptoms that used to bother you feel less intense and less catastrophic—you may even, at times, forget that it is there. As YOU grow in strength, ITS strength diminishes.
Also, once you have learned that you can face your fear without catastrophe ensuing, it frees you to live your life without letting anxiety narrow your choices.
So—what are you doing for your anxiety workout today?
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.