Got Anxiety? Plunging head first (literally) into uncertainty
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
In previous articles, we discussed the notion that it is NOT the CONTENT of one’s thoughts that triggers worry.
The fuel that ignites the worry engine is finding oneself needing to deal with situations associated with uncertain outcomes. The typical response associated with worry is to avoid the triggers which create a feeling of anxious arousal.
Believing that avoidance is the solution, winds up becoming the problem. Why is this?
AVOIDANCE: THE PROBLEM
Those who rely on avoiding triggers associated with worry and anxiety feel short-term gain, accompanied by long-term pain.
In other words, when a person avoids a situation they believe will cause feelings of anxiety, they experience immediate emotional relief (whoosh, that awful feeling of anxiety is gone).
Unfortunately, the strategy of avoidance results in the following:
• Avoidance does not allow a person to discover that his/her catastrophic predictions never occurred, or at least not to the extent expected.
• Initial feelings of lessened anxiety strengthen avoidance.
• Avoidance increases one’s sensitivity to “threat cues,” further increasing anxious arousal.
• Avoidance generates a sense of guilt and low self-esteem.
Chronic worriers have great difficulty dealing with situations involving uncertainty; they do not like surprises, even good ones!
The reason worriers have a difficult relationship with uncertainty is due to their beliefs concerning the concept of uncertainty itself, which include:
• Uncertainty will cause me to feel completely out of control.
• Uncertainty represents threat; if I feel self-doubt, something bad is going to happen.
• Uncertainty puts me at a disadvantage, which creates a feeling of unfairness.
Uncertainty, worry, and avoidance are intimately linked. When needing to deal with situations involving uncertain outcomes, the worrier begins to feel vulnerable, thus triggering the worry process.
Once anxious, the person engages in some type of avoidance strategy, believing that worrying will somehow create less uncertainty, followed by feeling less vulnerable.
Instead, one worry generates another worry, which then triggers another worrisome thought, resulting in an even greater sense of uncertainty.
WANT UNCERTAINTY: TAKING THE PLUNGE
As therapists who treat anxiety conditions, we teach others that the most effective method for managing anxiety is to increase one’s tolerance level for feeling a sense of uncertainty, as opposed to the relentless pursuit of 100% certainty (which does not exist).
We also teach methods for helping to eliminate typical avoidance strategies. Discussing these skills is one thing; demonstrating them is quite another.
So, we chose to practice what we preach. This month, we celebrated our 64th wedding anniversary (32 years apiece).
Rather than buy one another a gift enclosed in colorful wrapping paper, we decided to APPROACH the very thing we have avoided for years— SKYDIVING— an event filled with UNCERTAINTY!
That’s correct, we chose to do something that was completely unnecessary and counterintuitive — jumping out of an airplane not experiencing any mechanical difficulties, at an altitude of 15,000 feet!
Why do such a thing? Because, neither of us wanted to engage in an activity we have both AVOIDED for years; despite that fact that our son Chris, and his girlfriend Wendy, had invited us to join them in their FIRST skydiving experience earlier this year — we politely declined (avoided).
However, now it was time to take the plunge directly into the face of uncertainty!
Jumping out of an airplane is not something a person needs to do; unless they WANT to experience a sense of uncertainty.
We felt it necessary to do just that — jumping from a plane into an boundless sky of “what if” uncertain outcomes.
What if the parachute doesn’t open? What if we have a terrible landing and suffer broken legs or ribs? The what ifs are infinite. In case you’re wondering if any of those “what ifs” occurred, the answer is “NO.”
Instead, we experienced the thrill of our first sky diving experience, as well as ANTI-CLIMATIC outcomes associated with earlier catastrophic predictions.
By the way, our patients loved watching the videos taken by the local business, Skydive Truckee Tahoe, where we jumped, because those videos allowed them the opportunity to view the techniques we teach:
• Uncertainty does NOT signal threat; it just feels uncomfortable.
• Strengthen your tolerance level for situations involving uncertain outcomes.
• Lower the meaningfulness regarding the content of your worry—it’s NOT about the CONTENT; feeling uncertain triggers worry.
• Approach uncertainty, want it, and enjoy the benefits of NOT AVOIDING!
Isn’t it time YOU dive head first into situations involving uncertain outcomes?
Come on, stop avoiding and take the plunge—you deserve to no longer be kept hostage in the relationship you have with your anxiety.
Open the chute and enjoy the ride. It’s a lovely view!
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinev illage.com to learn more.