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Why You Want to Feel Anxious, and Do It Anyway

I can’t remember where I first heard Dr. Sally Winston talk about “the while,” but I do remember the light bulb going off. I was so excited because it made so much sense.

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Sally Winston, PsyD is a renowned author, founder of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, and all-around expert in treating anxiety disorders and OCD.

She basically said that instead of waiting until an anxious feeling is gone before you do something, learn to do it WHILE you feel scared, worried, grossed out, angry, sad, etc.

Dr. Winston suggests that we feel the fear around an action WHILE we take the action.

Our default reaction to feeling fear is to avoid it, so those whose anxiety runs higher tend to resist the feelings by avoiding whatever’s causing them. For example, someone may be afraid of getting into an elevator, so they only take the stairs. If there aren’t stairs, they don’t go. Or let’s say someone is afraid of saying something stupid, so they stay quiet. All the time. The point is that they’re avoiding an activity because of the anxiety.

While avoiding can provide some short-term relief, it only increases the anxiety long term. Avoidance teaches the brain that this (and other similar activities) should be avoided. Before you know it, life gets small, and your anxiety actually grows. What we resist persists.

Other words can be used instead of “while” such as “despite” or “in spite of.”

Avoidance is one way we try to get out of feeling uncomfortable. It helps to remember that feelings are temporary.

Engaging in what I call contingency living is another. It says, “I can do X only IF I have Y.” Y is a safety behavior or ritual to make X, the activity, tolerable. Contingency living isn’t really recovery because the activity relies on an external crutch. What happens when you don’t have Y? What happens when you forget your Xanax, run out of soap or are away from a loved one?

Recovery is being able to do X regardless of Y … even if it’s hard.

And it will be hard until you become more comfortable. That takes practice and more often than not, guidance. Contact me if you’d like to learn more.`