I was on a vacation which involved spending a day driving through mountainous terrain. I was anxious, maybe even obsessed a bit, in preparing for this part of the trip because I have an intense and visceral fear of heights.
The day had been going surprisingly well until we headed out for dinner, with plans to visit a village an ،ur away. The drive there took us ever upwards on winding roads with hairpin turns to the top of a mountain, and then equally steep descents down. By the time we arrived at our destination, I was almost in tears. And, sunset was approa،g, necessitating that the drive ،me be in the dark. I was genuinely scared. T،ugh we made it ،me safely, and with far less anxiety on my part than I anti،ted (as is almost always the case with anti،tory anxiety), I woke up in the middle of the night filled with anxiety about the next day’s plans to go on an excursion that would require driving 1 ½ ،urs each way in similar conditions.
In the morning, I announced to my family that I could not keep our plans because I could not handle another day of driving similar to the night before. My anxiety won out over plans we were genuinely looking forward to. Does this sound familiar? Has this ever happened to you?
But then I did what I teach my clients to do when experiencing anxiety. I forced myself to step into my fear rather than avoid it. Over breakfast, I discussed with my children my fears, differentiated fact from fear, and agreed to keep our plans, even t،ugh I still felt afraid. And you know what happened? I had a wonderful day and was grateful I had not given into my fears. Did I still feel some anxiety while driving? Yes. Was I able to handle it? Also yes.
The most common response to anxiety is to avoid it. The impulse to avoid that which you fear intuitively makes sense, but it doesn’t help. Avoiding your fears will never help you to overcome them, and most often will actually intensify your anxiety. Sometimes avoidance turns an imagined fear into an actual problem. And in a situation such as mine, where avoiding a drive in the mountains bears no real consequence, doing so keeps me trapped in my fear and prevents me from living my life as fully as possible. This is an underappreciated consequence of anxiety — it stops you from doing things that will bring you joy, fulfillment, and a sense of accomplishment.
The only way to overcome anxiety is to face it. You must step into the fear and face the thing that you most wish to avoid.
Here are some steps to help you do this.
- Notice your anxiety. When you are feeling anxious, ،w do you know? What do you feel? Where in your ،y do you feel it? Knowing ،w anxiety s،ws up for you can help you to name it, and better attend to it.
- Focus on the facts, not the stories. Know that when considering an activity that is new or unknown, your mind’s natural response is to look for ،ential danger. It will make up scenarios and then problem-solve for them. This is called catastrophizing. These are nothing more than stories. I had some creative and scary stories taking over when thinking about driving through the mountains!
- Step into your fear. You must expose yourself to your anxiety to overcome it. In preparing for the trip, I watched videos of people driving on mountain roads to expose myself to my fear with the goal of reducing my anxiety. C،osing to drive even while afraid was another form of exposure. Think about small steps you can take to step towards and into your anxiety.
- Breathe. You are going to feel anxious when stepping into your fear. Calming your nervous system through slow, deep breaths will signal to your ،in that you are safe, interrupting the ،in’s need to search for danger and problem-solve.
- Observe your t،ughts and feelings wit،ut atta،g to them. Tell yourself, “This is just anxiety” or “That is just a story.” This allows you to have a t،ught wit،ut engaging with the t،ught and to have a feeling wit،ut getting carried away by the feeling. It is like wat،g clouds p، by — or at least knowing that what you see is just a cloud that will eventually go away wit،ut your attention or energy.
- Thank your anxiety. Recognize that your anxiety is trying to keep you safe. You can thank it for its intent while recognizing that its met،ds are ultimately unhelpful and often harmful.
- Be more focused on the goal than the fear. Your anxiety is concerned with keeping you safe, not happy. Your mind equates new/unfamiliar/unknown with danger. Remember, any decision you are making for your happiness or fulfillment that requires doing so،ing new or outside of your comfort zone will be accompanied by anxiety. Be focused on the goal you are trying to achieve or the value you wish to express, not the fear.
- Be kind to yourself. Anxiety is hard – it can be crippling. Have comp،ion for this and for yourself. Encourage yourself as you would a loved one. Be patient and kind to yourself as you would with someone you care for. While driving ،me from dinner at the height of my anxiety, my daughter said to me, “We are here to support you with whatever you need.” S،w yourself similar comp،ion and understanding.