On the precipice: Today’s exposure
I’m fearful of doing something today. I’ve promised that I would get on the Q train from Manhattan to Queens, specifically Astoria. The promise was made to my doctor, my wife, and most importantly, myself.
My fear is strong and it’s pulling me toward avoidance. Or maybe I’m pulling it toward avoidance.
This fear, my phobia, agoraphobia, does not care about logic. It does not care about intellectual reasoning. Facts are malleable things to be manipulated in the service of safety and comfort. My fear convinces me that I’m safe where I am, at home, on my couch. My fear does not play the long game. Rather, it feeds off of short term rewards.
But life doesn’t work this way. Life is a long game. Immediate rewards are appeasements without structural value. Foundational work, the work that is hard and arduous. Foundational work in the long game is steel while the work that rewards immediate gains is straw.
Intellectually, I completely agree with this previous paragraph. Hell, I wrote it. But this logic is ignored when it comes to panic. Why? Because by the time you’ve considered the logical route, you’re sympathetic nervous system has already kicked off. You are already experience anticipatory anxiety. This emotional side of fear has begun to setup camp in your consciousness. You’re awareness of it is vague unless you’re really paying attention. It’s a stealth feeling, by design.
Anticipatory anxiety is you’re body’s way of preparing for anxiety sometime in the future. It’s job is to interfere with your thought process prior to the event so that the potential of feeling a certain level of anxiety is inserted as a consideration in your decision to do something. I like to think of it as your mind’s way of deconstructing your anxiety into it’s own set of facts. It’s sort of like reading a recipe for a new dish. You first look at the end result, maybe a picture in a book, and decide that this is what you want to cook. But you still have to take the extra step of vetting the ingredients to make sure there isn’t something included that offends your sense of taste.
So, what is anticipatory anxiety telling me right now?
1. You are perfectly comfortable where you are at.
This is true. I’m nicely ensconced on a couch in fluffy grey sweat pants and a big green sweatshirt, looking at the cool gray morning outside. But still, my mind is restless knowing that I still have this chore (getting on subway to Queens) to do very soon.
2. The effort to risk high anxiety or panic is negotiable.
This is also true. I have the option to head into the unknown and potentially face extreme discomfort via anxiety and maybe even panic or I can go with status quo. With the status quo, I have evidence of being anxiety free with many routes to safety easily accessible to me. But this is the exact thing I’m trying to fix. By giving into this idea I’m feeding these avoidance feelings and making them stronger. As a result, the next time will be even more difficult.
3. Next time is an option.
True again. I can always punt the day. I can always talk myself into an excuse for not facing the anxiety today. Maybe I have a slight headache anyway and I should probably lie down. Or since today is a Saturday, I should use the day off to rest and get some house chores done. Then I can try to do this again on a weekday, when it’s more of a convenience. This is the vicious cycle of avoidance. Punting this decision doesn’t make it easier or more likely the next time. In fact, what I’ve done is validated the avoidance tactic and made it less likely I’ll succeed the next time.
4. Panic will be so uncomfortable that you’ll do something crazy to get out of the situation, so why risk it?
Intellectually, I know that this is not true. But I do have some evidence that I’ve stubbornly taken myself out of situations at the last minute in service of avoidance. Things like getting off an airplane after the doors closed or sticking out my arm to stop an elevator door from closing at the last second. So it is true, panic will be extremely uncomfortable. This means, by the way, that it’s working as designed. But I don’t have evidence that I’ll do something *crazy* to get out of the situation. Here’s the rub, I don’t have evidence that I won’t either. Intellectually, it’s highly unlikely. Emotionally, it’s a possibility.
5. If the conditions aren’t perfect, then this is a risky thing to do.
This one is intellectually false, but very compelling. This is called a safety behavior. A safety behavior is anything you do in service of trying to control a situation to make it less likely that you experience anxiety or panic. It validates two false narratives. One, that feeling anxiety or panic should be avoided and two, that the situation is inherently dangerous and should be avoided. Safety behaviors are compelling because they give me the illusion of control. They present an interesting irony, when I use safety behaviors and get through an exposure, I have more of a relief or “glad that’s over” feeling. When I get through an exposure without safety behaviors, I feel pride. Interesting.
So yes, I’m feeling a lot of anticipatory anxiety today. I’d rather stay here, in my comfortable clothes, in my comfortable apartment, drinking tea and reading a book. Making sure the world around me is warm and fuzzy and anxiety free.
But I’ll eventually have to face anxiety and panic again. It’s not going away. How I handle it in the future is largely determined by my courage today. I have to do it in spite of anxiety and panic. In spite of.