Use Opposite Action to Get Out of the Fear Cycle for Good
Fear: the distressing feeling we get when our brain perceives danger. You know the one. Maybe your heart starts beating faster or your hands start to sweat. For me, it feels like butterflies in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. You might get tunnel vision, unable to think clearly or focus on what’s going on around you. You’re frozen in your tracks. Anxiety might drive you to leave the situation all together, before you’ve had a chance to get your needs or wants met. Afterwards, you feel disappointed and regretful, asking yourself, “Why didn’t I stick around?” or “Why didn’t I speak up?” Does this sound familiar?
It doesn’t matter if it’s a real or imagined danger, our brain reacts the same way. Our amygdala kicks on and we experience the fight-flight-or-freeze response. I talked in a previous blog about exposure being one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. An exposure technique that I teach my clients, developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, is called opposite action to emotion. Opposite action means doing the opposite of what our brain is telling us to do. When we experience fear and feel anxious, it’s natural for our brain to tell us to avoid and run away. In fact, this can be highly effective if there is a wild animal running towards us or we encounter some other life-or-death situation. The problem is, most of the time our life is not truly being threatened when we experience fear. Instead, our brain perceives the situation as dangerous and wants to drive us towards safety. When I was in graduate school, fear surfaced whenever I wanted to ask a question or make a comment around students and professors I didn’t know very well. Instead of speaking up in class, I’d sit paralyzed with worry about what my peers would think of me, if the question would make sense, if I’d sound stupid, and on and on. I’d undoubtedly leave the classroom kicking myself for not putting myself out there and getting my questions answered.
An underlying principle about fear is that sometimes it is justified and other times it is not. Fear is justified when a car is veering towards us or we are in another situation where our life is truly being threatened. Fear is not justified when the situation won’t literally kill us (no matter how much it feels like it could) or put us in danger. When we determine our fear is not justified by the facts, opposite action calls us to do the opposite of what fear is telling us to do (fight, fly, or freeze). Here are some tried and true ways to engage in opposite action:
Try something new.
Sign up for a Zumba class. Volunteer to lead a group at school or church. Offer to help on a committee at work. Doing something that takes you out of your comfort zone, especially when your brain is telling you to avoid it, is a powerful intervention. For me, trying something new meant forcing myself to make one comment or ask one question in every class until I no longer felt powerless against fear. Trying something different creates new neural pathways in the brain, which get stronger with repetition. Eventually, these new pathways create new, healthier habits.
Ask for help.
If you’re holding out on doing something new because it’s too difficult, get support. If you haven’t tried the new thing because you don’t know what you’re doing, ask someone. Asking for help is particularly challenging for women. We have been socialized to believe that we should know all things, be all things, and excel at all things. Fear of judgment is why we lie about having a housekeeper or buying store-bought cookies for the bake sale. In fact, worry about judgment is one of the top reasons I hear clients say they are still stuck in self-defeating patterns. To combat this specific type of fear, get in the habit of asking for help, even if you don’t think you need it.
Go it alone.
This might seem contrary what I just said about asking for help. However, opposite action is all about doing what is effective. Sometimes the fear we are experiencing is about going it alone. Perhaps you have no problem attending a lecture if a friend tags along, but you miss out on things you really want to do if you are tasked to go alone. It is difficult to learn to tolerate fear and move through it if we constantly distract ourselves with the company of others. Solo pursuits are a helpful opposite action if fear of doing things alone keeps you from engaging in your values, whether that’s a hobby or an opportunity for personal growth.
I encourage you to set the intention to try something new, ask for help, or go it alone ahead of time. It is more challenging to engage in an opposite action on a whim (though it can be done with practice). Then, breathe in and out deeply and slowly to engage your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of our autonomic nervous system that slows our heart rate and breathing and helps us to relax. Remind yourself, “This is going to feel uncomfortable and I can do it,” to stop unhelpful thoughts that encourage an all-or-none mentality. In fact, I suggest replacing but with and whenever you can to help with this shift in thinking. After you do an opposite action, reflect on the data you’ve collected by reviewing your whole emotional experience and the outcome. Determine if the situation was indeed life-threatening. While it’s likely your brain was engaged in catastrophic thinking, there may be a time when the situation was a life-or-death one. Don’t do those things again! If the outcome was not dangerous but still not what you hoped for, use the information to revise your plan for next time. If it was successful, store this information away for the next time you are experiencing fear, and remind yourself what you are capable of.