Anxiety and Avoidance; Frenemies

Anxiety can be a crippling response to live with. For some people they might be generally anxious about many things, for others it might be something specific (like places with lots of people, doctors, eating out, taking medication) or it could be a variety of related experiences (such as hot foods, eating out, gaining weight, people seeing you eat). Anxiety is, generally, fear of what may happen in the future. Generally, the lead up to an event is when the anxiety is present. After it, it’s gone. During the situation, it can still be there, but is about the immediate future (i.e. ‘I’m scared this dog is going to bite me’ or ‘I’m scared I’m going to need the toilet and I won’t be able to get there’ or ‘I’m scared I’m going to have a panic attack’).

It’s worth mentioning at this point, that there are physical conditions that can cause anxiety, so it is always advisable to visit the doctor and have these ruled out (including heart conditions, thyroid conditions, food intolerances, and more).

Anxiety can strike with a variety of ambushes, like racing heart rate, sweating, sweating palms, a need to run, that surge of adrenalin, being shakey and so many other things. All of which feel horrible! It’s very natural to want that to stop and to return to what feels like a safer situation. So you escape whatever it is making you feel anxious.

That escape starts a vicious anxiety cycle (apologies for the layout, I hope it’s clear).

You felt that experience of anxiety.
It was horrible.

 ↓ 

Then you’re scanning for situations           ←
where it might happen again.

 ↓                                                              ↑

You identify what you perceive may cause
the anxiety, becoming hyper alert to it.

 ↓                                                              ↑

You ensure that you don’t put yourself in
that situation. You avoid it.

 ↓                                                              ↑

That gives you instant relief and eases
the anxiety somewhat. You can breathe    →

 

However, with this cycle, it grows and grows, at the point where you are scanning for situations where something might make you feel anxious, you’re becoming more and more hyper alert, which means that more and more things may make you feel anxious.

So, it might start off with being injured by an animal, initially you might be anxious of getting into the same space as that particular animal (so you might see it, but avoid getting too close, but can tolerate seeing it from a distance but with the awareness it might come close to you), then it might be seeing that animal (so you avoid the place where you know the animal lives, but can move around, otherwise freely but with the awareness you might see the animals), then it might be seeing any animal of that kind (so you might actively avoid places where you know you might find an animal of that type, but are still ok with other kinds of animals but aware you might run into the other animal, and maybe mistake similar animals for the one that hurt you), then it might be seeing any animal at all (so you avoid going places where there might be animals, such as friend’s houses, and it might make it difficult for you to go out, but you can still do it but with the awareness that you may see an animal), then it might be leaving the house (so you avoid leaving the house- including into your garden- in case you see an animal, and you only feel safe inside your home because you know there are no animals in there). Soon, you might find it hard to leave the house in case you see an animal, which all originated from being injured by a specific kind of animal. This is an extreme example, but a realistic one, nonetheless.

If we apply that to the cycle then you experienced that entirely natural and understandable ‘fight or flight’ response to being hurt by the animal (for the purposes of this, let’s say a cat belonging to a friend scratched you).

Then you became ultra aware of that cat, whenever you go to your friend’s house.

When she comes near you, you feel anxious and move away, avoiding connecting or interacting with her. Maybe your friend puts her outside, or shuts her in a different room.

Your anxiety eases when you know she can’t scratch you again.

You feel relief and feel better, and can carry on as normal.

When you’re at your friend’s house though, you’re still aware that the cat is there, and still aware that somehow she could still come near you.

And then the cycle starts again, but can change and morph and grow over time.

Anxiety feeds on avoidance and avoidance feeds of anxiety. They go hand in hand, like best friends, but, equally, they feed off each other in a toxic way, controlling you.

When we feel that scared and out of control, then it is natural to do what we can to start to feel safe and regain some of that control. The deceptiveness behind this, is that the more you avoid (to stop the anxiety), the more you’re allowing the anxiety to control you.

If you did what you wanted to do as if you didn’t feel the anxiety, would you still do the exact same things and live in the same way?

Most likely not. So, how to get your life back?

A few years ago, prior to being a therapist, I spoke to someone who had been unable to leave her house. She started a regime of ‘do something every day that puts me outside my comfort zone’. Wow. Over time, with doing something that challenged her each day, she went from being someone who was unable to leave her house, who was able to leave her house, who was able to work, who was able to socialise, who was able to stand up in front of people as a public speaker, who had very limited anxiety and any anxiety she did have, she controlled (rather than it controlling her).

That’s an amazing example of someone putting themselves out of their comfort zone, but it can feel a huge task for someone battling anxiety.

We know that we feel emotions and our body is reacting to them prior to being consciously aware of them (for more about that, come and book in for some BWRT® with me or Google ‘Libet’s Clock’), so you will feel the anxiety before you’re aware of it, but, if you want to start to regain your control of your life back, then take a tiny step towards that, towards tolerating that feeling, towards being in control of your anxiety and not being controlled by it, to the life that you want.

Equally, investing in some therapy could be hugely beneficial for you. BWRT® is my favourite way to work when someone comes with anxiety because it can be a miracle worker and make such fast and effective changes. That said, there are other methods and philosophies that might suit other people who have anxieties.

Whatever approach you take, when you are ready to work towards anxiety controlling your life, and regaining control of your life yourself, that is going to mean you need to start to break your cycle.

You can do it. I absolutely believe that. Be kind and gentle with yourself, and persevere. You can reclaim your life to whatever level you want to. You will do it. I believe in you.