Does Facing Your Fears Work For Anxiety?
Face your fears. Do things anyway.
We’ve all heard this anxiety advice, right?
It’s based on the premise that repeated exposure to anxiety triggers will squash your anxiety. That if you just expose yourself to anxiety triggers enough times, you will eventually learn that there is no reason to be afraid.
This sounds great and they always make it sound so simple! You just go out and do The Thing a few times, and BOOM, anxiety begone!
But is it REALLY that simple? Does repeated exposure actually work in the real world? Should you always face your fears and do things anyway? Regardless of how anxious you are feeling?
Does Facing Your Fears Work For Anxiety?
Yes, It Can Work…
Yes, I do believe that repeated exposure can actually work under certain circumstances. I believe this not only because there are scientific studies that have reached this conclusion, but also because I have experienced this personally:
- Any kind of conflict between human beings is an anxiety trigger for me, but after being exposed to conflict between my three kids for six plus years, it’s now gotten to the point where someone has to be bleeding profusely before my alert system will go off.
- Driving a car is another pretty strong anxiety trigger for me. However, if I drive a familiar car to the same destination enough times, I will eventually be able to do so calmly with no anxiety symptoms whatsoever.
…But It Doesn’t Work Without Two Extra Steps…
But here’s the thing. Simply exposing myself to triggers – as in I’m just going to go do The Thing and that’s that – has never worked for me. In addition to showing up, I have to complete two additional steps:
- I have to consciously work to relax my body by taking a long breath through my nose, down into my belly and by checking for tension. This action is a signal to my brain that there is no threat even though my brain thinks there is one.
- I also have to tell myself that there is nothing to be scared of. Aaand I have to actually believe this to be true. Just parroting doesn’t help. This means that I sometimes have to take additional steps to enable myself to believe that there is nothing to be scared of. For example, to overcome driving anxiety, I had to first work on improving my driving skills in order to convince myself that I was able to operate a vehicle safely. Alternatively, I have to be able to convince myself that even if bad things happen, I’m going to be able to cope with them. Like if I get lost while driving, I can pull over and check my phone for directions or call my husband for help.
When I repeat this process (have my anxiety be triggered → breathe and relax → reassure myself) enough times, it becomes easier and easier to calm myself down and eventually my brain learns to not be triggered at all.
…And It Can Take A Really Long Time For It To Work…
Did you catch me say “enough times”? That’s the downside here.
Learning to calm myself down after being triggered is a skill I picked up fairly quickly.
But in my experience, it can take a REALLY long time before you stop being triggered in the first place. For example, I had to repeat the steps hundreds if not thousands of times before my brain learned that kid conflicts were not worth getting triggered over.
In that particular case, it was easy for me to get enough exposure, because I was literally living with the trigger and it happened naturally many times every day.
But many other triggers are virtually impossible to repeat enough times in the real world. You can’t control other people. You can’t control all circumstances. You only have so much time.
…And It Often Only Applies To A Narrow Situation…
Another caveat is that when your brain learns that one itty bitty trigger is not a big deal, it doesn’t automatically translate to other related triggers.
For example, my brain learned that conflict between my kids was not dangerous, but I’m still triggered by conflict between other people.
And I no longer get anxiety symptoms from driving to the few destinations I drive to regularly, but I still get antsy about driving to new places.
…And It Doesn’t Take Into Account That Many People With Anxiety Are Highly Sensitive People…
About twenty percent of people are born so-called Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). Their stress response systems are triggered more easily than the average person’s and they have a harder time returning to a normal state after being stressed. This inborn higher sensitivity can be further exacerbated if the highly sensitive person had a traumatic childhood.
And what does this have to do with facing your fears and doing things anyway? Well, for those of us who were born highly sensitive, our stress response is triggered so easily that there are a shit ton of triggers to deal with.
…Which Can Make It Virtually Impossible To Repeatedly Expose Yourself To Every Trigger…
There can be so many triggers that if we tried to repeatedly expose ourselves to everything that triggers a stress response, we would spend the rest of our lives doing nothing but being triggered.
If you are an HSP, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
And if you are not, please know that I’m not joking or exaggerating here. 😀
…And Which Also Means That Repeatedly Exposing Yourself To Every Trigger Can Actually Make Your Anxiety Worse…
One interesting thing about the human brain is that when you keep using certain parts of your brain a lot, they keep getting stronger. It’s kinda like exercising your muscles.
So when you keep having your stress response triggered too frequently without sufficient stretches of calm time in between, the parts of your brain that are responsible for putting you in a state of alarm keep getting stronger.
…Until they are just on all the time.
And you arrive in the Land of Generalized Anxiety.
And THIS is why I think the simplistic “face your fears” and “do things anyway” advice is BAD advice.
It’s not that you should NEVER face your fears and do things anyway, but if you do it too frequently, without the two extra steps, and without plenty of time for your body to recover in between getting triggered, all you are going to get is excessive stress with all the accompanying health hazards and probably worsening anxiety symptoms to boot.
I know, because that is exactly what happened to me. I faced my fears and I did it all anyway. And I pretty much destroyed my health (and my life) in the process.
…So If Your End Goal Is To Squash Anxiety And Feel Calm Most Of The Time, Here’s The Advice To Follow Instead
These fives steps are what finally allowed me to get out of 24/7 dread and into a calm place:
- Make basic self care (sleep+exercise+nutrition) your #1 priority in life.
- Make ample down-time away from stressors your #2 priority in life.
- Let go of people pleasing, comparisons, and perfectionism in order to stick to the two priorities above.
- Then figure out what is MOST important to you in life. How do you want to feel? What is going to bring you the most meaning? Focus on facing fears in the service of those goals. And at any one point in time, only take on an amount of stress you can realistically process and recover from.
- Avoid the rest.
P.S. For concrete help in making self care and downtime actually happen, you might want to download the Calm Planner. It’s a set of printables I created, including idea lists, calendar pages, and a habit tracker. And it’s free! To have it sent to your email, just enter your address below and click the button.