What is the number one way humans behave when they are anxious? The answer is simple, we avoid what is making us anxious. Unfortunately, this natural instinct could make us feel worse. Avoidance can work in certain situations. For example, when your "spidey senses" tell you to avoid a dark street, or when you say "nah" to walking through a poison ivy patch. However, when you fear objectively safe situations, avoidance can actually worsen your anxiety. For example, if you experience social anxiety or irrational phobias such as fear of heights, avoiding what you scares you can exacerbate our timidity.
Let's pretend you are a socially anxious individual who is afraid of attending parties. You receive an invitation to celebrate a colleague's birthday. Cue the familiar signs and symptoms of worry; upset stomach, muscle tension, and brain buzzing with lists of ways you will make a fool of yourself if you go. You decline the invitation by construing a white lie that protects your colleague's feelings, and your ego. Close call, but you get to spend a quiet evening at home. You feel instantaneous relief. However, the next time an invitation comes along, are you more or less likely to attend? The correct answer, of course, is less likely. Avoidance worked once, why not use it a second time? The pattern gets repeated over and over again, and, along with it, your fear of social situations grows. Eventually, you become more socially isolated, and more fearful of relationships. How do you stop this vicious cycle? You got it, by attending a party and facing your fear.
The trick to facing an anxiety provoking situation is to accept your feelings, instead of fighting them. In our hypothetical example of a socially anxious individual, it is unrealistic to get rid of all the fears and worries of attending a party before actually building the courage to go to one. If it were that easy to get rid of negative emotions, anxiety would be scarce. Instead, it has been estimated that at any time, 18.1 % of adults suffer from Anxiety Disorders. The good news is that you can learn to do something that makes you anxious, even if your brain is full of "what ifs" and worst case scenarios. We all have times when we question ourselves, and even drive ourselves mad with worry and doubt. However, when our fears prevent us from doing something that is actually benign or even beneficial for us, like socializing, it is important to separate our internal emotional experience from reality. We cannot make the irrational scary feelings disappear, but we can learn to prevent them from dictating our actions. Do not criticize yourself for being scared, instead, accept the way you feel, and attend the party anyway. Learn to say "I feel anxious" instead of "I am anxious." Once we make this subtle distinction, we are no longer fused with our feelings, and we can choose the way we behave. We might feel uncomfortable, but we act according to how we choose, instead of letting our feelings drive us. Our emotions become the weather, while we are the anchor in the storm. We learn to tolerate our nervousness, and face scary activities. Over time, the anxiety becomes less important, and the parties become a lot more fun.