For the past couple of weeks now I have been trying to live life without fighting my anxieties and other ‘negative’ feelings that may arise. I have been trying to navigate the world with an understanding that all feelings will come and go.
Close to where I live, there is frequently a disabled man in a wheelchair who is begging for spare change. One day when I was walking to the shops I glanced at him and he shouted in an aggressive manner “what the hell are you staring at?!”. Without thinking I snapped back “I’m not staring at anything!”. I really didn’t like how aggressive he was and he made me feel like I was doing something wrong. Anyway from that point on, I’ve always had high anxiety over the idea of seeing him again.
If this was just some random person on a random street it would be okay but as I mentioned this guy is frequently there. I’m faced with a few options, first is to take the long way around the shops so that I don’t have to walk past this guy. Second, avoid going to the shops all together or choose another place to do my shopping (not very practical) or third is to challenge my anxieties.
The method that I’ve had most success with is a DBT skill called opposite action to emotion. The idea is that you do the opposite action of what your current emotion is telling you to do. Eg: anxiety tells me to avoid? I confront! What appeals to me most about this skill is that it is so brutally simple and there isn’t too much thought that needs to go into it. It’s essentially just brute forcing the anxiety into submission in hopes that the anxiety dissipates as you get more exposure to the triggering event.
Brute forcing through opposite action helped tame my anxiety in a number of domains, however it came at a big cost. It was mentally and physically taxing. It reminded me of my time engaging with CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) where I would be tasked to continually challenge my thoughts multiple times a day *groan*. But where I would hit a wall with these techniques is when I was faced with such an extreme trigger which generated a tremendous amount of anxiety. No matter how much diffusion or thought challenging I mustered up, there were some things which I still found myself avoiding. That avoidance led to shame as I was unable to overcome my anxiety, and that led to feelings of frustration and resentment which sometimes led me to engage with other unhelpful avoidant behaviors.
So what was different this next time??? I dropped the struggle. I imagined the anxiety that I was about to face, and accepted that those feelings of anxiety are going to happen, that they have been happening and may continue to happen. As I walked to the shops, the most noticeable change was that there was no inner voice trying to coach me through the anxiety, there was no inner conflict between my anxious self and my determined self. I simply told myself that this was going to suck and went about my day. As a result I think I felt less anxiety over the situation but more importantly that single event did not stick with me for the next hour or so. It simply happened and I moved on.