Although it may have manifested in a variety of ways over the years, the long and the short of it is that I have struggled with anxiety for yonks. The intensity and duration of it ebbs and flows and I have even experienced periods of relative freedom from its confines – which I have learnt never to take for granted!
Recently though, the anxiety has been a struggle. The last few days at least provide a snapshot of what it can be like to live with an anxiety or panic disorder in the way that I do. I thought I would write a post about what it’s like to live with anxiety on a daily basis, and what that looks like for me here.
The anxiety makes me want to crawl into myself until I stop existing. It makes me want to stay in bed with my head buried under the covers, because that’s where I feel safest. It makes me want to avoid the outside world in an attempt to appease the undesirable sensations, thoughts and feelings I am experiencing internally. However, none of these things are in line with my long-term goals and what I ultimately want for myself and my life, and I know that giving in to these action urges will only lead to worsen what it is I am experiencing.
This is because when someone who struggles with anxiety, panic, phobias, etc, gives in to these sorts of urges, they are inadvertently sending their brain the message that their fears are warranted – and that the only way to settle their system is to continue doing exactly what it is they are doing. Whether this is via avoiding, self-harming, drinking or engaging in other self-regulatory or safety behaviours, when the link between (unhealthy) urge and action is not broken, it serves only to reiterate anxious feelings and associations, becoming an endless self-perpetuating cycle.
This is something I do not want to continue engaging in; in fact quite the opposite – it is something I am fighting hard to move away from!
Now is the time for the DBT Skill of Opposite Action (to Current Emotion/ Urge) to come to the rescue for me.
Opposite Action is simply acting “oppositely” to an emotion and subsequent urge that is being experienced within a moment. This skill is appropriate in situations when an emotion – or its duration of intensity – does not fit a situation, or if there is a desire to change or challenge something ineffective you may be feeling. It is effective in ensuring that actions which are helpful, not harmful, are utilised. This skill is designed to increase the likelihood of engaging in behaviours that will eventually make us feel less distress, not more. It is not about denying or dismissing the emotion; it is about channelling or challenging it in a way that will serve us most effectively in the long-term.
For example, if I am experiencing high levels of anxiety about having a driving lesson – and this anxiety does not “Fit The Facts“, and is therefore unwarranted – my action urge might be to cancel my driving lesson completely. Cancelling my lesson would of course temporarily relieve the anxiety, but it would also be giving my brain the message that it is the necessary solution for extinguishing the fear. However, if I were to continue cancelling my lessons, convincing myself over and over that there is indeed a reason for my anxiety around driving, with time it would become harder and harder to even get back into the car. Eventually, in consistently regulating myself by simply refusing to drive, I might even develop a phobia.
The alternative to this might be to target my driving-related anxiety week after week after week, right from the onset. Using Opposite Action, I have continued to get in the car, take my lessons and practice between them, despite my anxiety desperately telling me not to. As soon as my body sensations and thoughts try to push me away from getting in the car, I have to consciously choose to act in a way that is going to challenge the fear. What has happened over time is that I am becoming increasingly desensitised to the process, and it is getting slowly easier and more comfortable to drive. Instead of indulging my action urge to avoid, I have been confronting my fears head-on. Through doing so, I am slowly building mastery, and proving to myself that there is no justification for the anxiety – which is dissipating as the months go by.
If I hadn’t used Opposite Action from the start, I would not still be having lessons today, let alone due to take my test within the next few months!
And this is just one example.
Opposite Action can be applied to anything, not just situations with a tangible trigger. I use Opposite Action daily when my desire is to stay in bed or indoors as opposed to venturing out into the world because I am experiencing shame. I use Opposite Action when feeling sad and noticing a desire to cancel plans to meet friends, by going ahead and seeing them anyway. I use Opposite Action when I am experiencing intense anger and the immediate urge to lash out, by instead gently avoiding the person and taking some time out for myself to cool down.
With anxiety, it is important I continue to act opposite and to challenge myself to push on unless a fear is justified. Using Opposite Action specifically to the emotion of anxiety has kept me functional in vital aspects of my life – from travelling on public transport, cooking food for the kids I nanny, and attending doctor’s appointments, to participating in family functions, socialising with certain friends, and learning to drive a car – which I otherwise would not be able to handle.