Tonight, I’m going on a date for the first time in almost a year. I don’t know this person very well, and I’m really not sure what to expect. I can’t stop imagining all the possible ways I could give a bad impression of myself or look like a fool. But hey, I’m going ahead with it, so I should give myself a little credit, right?
Avoidance behaviors are some of the most common and universal things that us anxiety sufferers deal with. Us lucky folks with anxiety disorders avoid stepping outside of our comfort zones like other people avoid salmonella or awkward dinner with in-laws. Unfortunately, it’s these very avoidance behaviors that keep us in loops of anxiety, never letting us free from the cycle of worry and discomfort.
There is much evidence to suggest that exposure therapy is one of the most effective methods for overcoming a range of anxiety disorders. This may not come as a surprise to you. But it probably still makes you a little uncomfortable. Why on earth would I want to force myself to do the very things that give me anxiety?
As I’ve explained before, the core of anxiety is associative learning. Your brain learns to make a connection between a particular stimulus (the sight of a bus, the thought of making small talk, the feeling of a racing heart) and the sensation of fear or anxiety. Over time, the association becomes automatic, and you can no longer control yourself from feeling anxious at the onset of whatever stimulus is evoking the anxiety.
To overcome this loop, then, we look to exposure therapy. We teach our brains that we’re not going to die if we sit on a bus. We’re not going to suffocate if we get into an elevator. And we’re certainly not going to irreparably destroy our lives if we make a mistake.
So today, I challenge you. Go out and do something outside of your comfort zone. No matter how big or how small, force yourself to make that leap and do something that may very well be worth the risk.
If you have panic disorder, do some cardio and let yourself feel your heart rate rising. Maybe you’ll find out that exercise isn’t so bad after all.
If you have agoraphobia, go for a stroll around the block, and maybe stop by the grocery store to get a treat. Maybe you’ll realize that being out and about is still as fun as ever!
If you have social phobia, strike up a conversation with someone on the street. You’ll probably realize that no one is out to get you, and you certainly won’t come across as a weirdo or a fool like you think.
I can’t speak for other anxiety disorders, so I will leave it there. Use your imagination and do something awesome today!
Let me know in the comments or on Twitter what you did to step outside of your comfort zone.