Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Feel the fear and don't do it anyway

Hi there, all you people who write motivational articles about how to "go for it," "feel the fear and do it anyway," and "get out of your comfort zone." I really appreciate what you are trying to accomplish with these articles.

Now, respectfully, could you all please knock it off?

Over the last two and a half years, I have done a lot of work with people with anxiety disorders. These are not people with quote-unquote too much stress, but rather people who suffer from issues like fears, phobias, and compulsions. They can't board airplanes, drive over bridges, or stop washing their hands 50 times a day. And whether you know it or not, articles like yours are part of their problem.

Since early 2009 I have been running a group program called "Anxiety Camp," and to a man or woman, its participants all tell me the same thing: well-meaning friends and relatives have always pushed them to engage in "Nike therapy" about their fears (e.g. just do it). The results are always the same. At best they suck it up, muddle through fearful situations, and then feel no better the next time they face them. More often they freak out, have setbacks, and end up worse off than where they started. And then everyone assumes that the sufferer simply isn't trying hard enough.

In reality, trying hard *is* the problem. It goes against your neurobiology. Being afraid is a survival instinct that protects us, and when we try to short-circuit that instinct, our subconscious pushes back - hard. So how do you get well from anxiety disorders? In tiny baby steps. While paying a lot of attention to what you tell yourself. That way, you start re-programming your circuits about what is frightening to you, as you gradually expand your comfort zone.

You see, the suck-it-up types want you to face your fears by gritting your teeth, putting your head down, and enduring situations. At best, doing this simply distracts you and teaches you nothing. At worst, it sensitizes you to situations you really want to become *de*-sensitized to. I want you to learn to become fully present in feared situations. And that almost always requires experiencing them gradually.

To be fair, I do understand the value of these motivational articles. Sometimes people decide to make brave, fundamental moves that change their lives. They choose to take control instead of take cover. And sometimes it works. For example, the day I leaped without a net from corporate life into self-employment will always rank up there as one of the most life-affirming things I've ever done.

But that is not the same as dealing with the fears that, statistically, one in five of us struggle with. And when fearful people read these articles - or worse, are handed them by well-meaning others - they become disheartened. And worst of all, don't realize that from a clinical standpoint, these words are often leading them toward illness and not wellness.

Conversely, when people start taking tiny baby steps from within their comfort zone, magic often starts to happen. I've watched this happen over and over. Anxiety scores drop, limits start disappearing, and people develop a renewed sense of faith in themselves. So if you're fearful, remember: learn all you can about your fears. Take things one small step at a time. And stay far away from motivational speakers.

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