Fighting Anxiety is all about Challenging, not “Zoning”

Recently I came across an article that talked about introverts: more specifically why it’s important to understand comfort boundaries and not press them too far.

The context was basically this: you’ve got a shy student who’s nervous to speak up in class. I’ve been in the same situation: so many loud, rambling voices spouting off sentence after sentence. Meanwhile you can hardly keep up, attention-wise (in some cases), and in most others it takes a lot of courage just to raise up your voice.

The article talked about how it’s wrong to expect “introverted” students to speak up if doing so makes them uncomfortable. The alternative solution is to work strictly within parameters.

It referenced a creative writing professor who, rather than placing their “introverted” student under the same course requirements for participation as everyone else, would have them email him/her with any comments regarding the material. Instead of encouraging them to feel more comfortable in a classroom setting, the alternative was to cater to said student’s perceived “fear” or discomfort with speaking up. Ergo, start a classroom dialogue outside of the classroom. And keep it strictly there.

Which really doesn’t help when you have a “condition” of fear. Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways: one of the most prominent is social discomfort. As a personal sufferer I have struggled with anxiety disorders as far back as I can remember. There were fears of eating, fears of being alone, fears of getting sick, fears of failure, and, yes, fears of social situations.

And I still struggle with them. But my way of overcoming isn’t through “zoning” myself into specific parameters. When your mind lives in a climate of fear you have to challenge those parameters. Keeping them as is only rationalizes every nuance of the fear inside you. “Fear” itself is real, but the things it tells you aren’t.

You’ve seen the news reports where they talk about how parents get their children to swim at an early age: by putting them in the water. There’s going to be fear and trepidation at first, but that gradually wanes over time.

Obviously I’m not advocating throwing infants into swimming pools with the expectation that they’ll magically float to the top. But it is important to realize that exposure causes conditioning.

When I went to therapy for anxiety problems my doctor always told me about exposure. You can’t treat someone’s fears unless you help them to face them.

Unfortunately nowadays, while we are starting to address mental health from a place from understanding, we can also fall into the bad habit of “zoning” people with certain issues. “Zoning” is basically what I meant earlier: in the case of the anxious or introverted student, respecting every single boundary their fears have set for them instead of helping them to overcome.

The last thing people with anxiety need is for someone to rationalize the irrational, negative thoughts that they have to struggle with on a daily basis. “Zoning” them only says “this is the way you ARE.” Treatment says “this is the way you CAN BE.”

We need more reinforcements than zoning. If I had accepted every facet of my fears, social and non-social, as the God-honest truth, then I would probably have spent the rest of my life curled away in some dark corner. Challenging my fears rather than accepting them has always made me feel stronger.

Why: because people with anxiety need to know that their terrors, however vicious, are unfounded. That’s what makes them heal. Not zoning. The disorder is not going to go poof and disappear completely. But when you challenge it, you show that you’re not letting it control you.

Another example: I have anxiety/confidence issues when it comes to talking to women. Which is probably why my dating life sucks. Every day there’s a self-esteem monster creeping out from inside me. At times I just want to look at myself in the mirror and think “shit, you’re hopeless. Who’s ever going to like you?”

But then again that’s the fear talking. And the only way you get past that is by challenging it. I spent a lot of my vacation time making efforts to casually chat with young women. Not so much for the reason of trying to “score” while away from home. But to challenge this inner monologue that makes me feel shy/unattractive for one reason or another.

When you don’t do that you allow your mind to fixate on past failures: the wrong women you “liked” that you really shouldn’t have at the end of the day. Ruminating doesn’t allow you to replace them or the hole in your heart. Re-conditioning does.

And in regards to that situation I’ve since been on dates, which allows me to feel hella better. But I still have those fearful moments. The only thing that propels me forward is the idea of challenging them. Challenge has yielded reward in the case of other anxieties I have struggled with. So maybe I’ll stick with that.

But it is hard. Very hard. All I know is that the task will become impossible if I relegate myself to the sum of my worst emotions. And the cancerous situations that bring them on (aka. fixation).

Exposure doesn’t kill the crippled “fear” conscious. Habit does. Meaning you have to practice, day-by-day, walking into the proverbial lion’s den. Taking a snapshot of it and pasting it your mirror doesn’t count as “facing fears”.

Even with good intentions you can make fears and discomforts more real by accepting them exactly as is. A healer is someone who walks hand-in-hand with you through troubled times. A healer friend will, as Leo McGarry famously said on the West Wing, show you the way out of your hole, once they’ve climbed inside with you. A zoner will simply mark that as YOUR hole and climb down every now and then to have a bonfire and several beers. Then they’ll go right back up to ground level and continue their party with everyone else.

Healing levels the playing field. Through encouragement. And a little bit of a nudge. Zoning keeps you right where you are: it continues the climate of fear, greasing the various wheels and cogs that keep churning inside you. Making you reticent.

A person with anxiety has to SEE and EXPERIENCE the dissonance between the fear within them and the world outside. Not the similarity, or the confirmation.

When I told my therapist about having problems speaking up in class she advised me to prepare notes. Do a little research beforehand to brush up on facts so you’re right in the game once the talking heads start talking. And nothing has made me feel better than contributing, against my worser wishes. Why: because nothing pleases you more than telling the negative voices inside you to piss off (or some other four letter word).

When I was terrified of being left alone it took a few nervous weeks of doing exactly that (albeit, in small, increasing increments) before I was hardly even thinking about it. Ergo, habit kills the horror. Not the existence of fear or trepidation but the stranglehold that it has over every aspect of your life.

What worked in one area can work in another. Exposure and challenge is pretty much interchangeable. And it edifies rather than compartmentalize you.

At the end of the day part of your business is people: how you communicate and get along with them. I myself am an struggling introvert. But I want to be better at communication. Reaching adulthood teaches you the value of social skills. Sometimes I can have my awkward want-to-be-left-alone moments. But I push myself by pushing “out”.

The result: I’ve made significantly more friends in the past year than I think I ever made during undergrad. But it wasn’t a matter of “comfort” or “zoning” for me. It was a matter of making my own zone bigger and more encompassing.

Ergo, challenge.

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