When you fear certain situations, your natural tendency is to avoid them. If you feel uncomfortable at parties or talking to strangers, you tend to avoid putting yourself in situations that will arouse that anxiety. Avoidance seems to be effective, because in the short term your fear decreases. You feel safer at home.
However, brain research shows that avoidance actually causes your fear to grow over the long term. Paradoxically, avoiding what you fear amplifies your anxiety when simply thinking about situations you fear.
Therapy can often help by cautiously exposing the fearful person to the very situations that create the initial anxiety. Repeated exposure to the source of a person’s anxiety will cause the hyper-sensitivity to dull.
Exposure should not be extreme, especially in the beginning. Otherwise, the fear would simply intensify. So, don’t go from the privacy of your living room to Times Square or Yankee Stadium on the Fourth of July.
If people who don’t like talking to strangers were to go to places with a few strangers every day, at first, anxiety would spike, but eventually it would diminish. As the brain gets more experience of being around strangers without negative consequences, it will probably learn that it isn’t dangerous after all. The part of the brain that has learned to be vigilant learns it’s okay to relax.
Of course, you want to avoid true danger. If you’re afraid of poisonous snakes, wingsuit flying off cliffs, or walking in the bad part of town after midnight, you’re better off keeping those fears. There is, after all, a biological basis for fear—some is necessary for survival!
But if your fear is unreasonable, hindering your life or relationships, and adding increasing unfounded anxiety, then it may be time to start dealing with homeopathic doses of safe exposure. If your fear turns into a panic disorder, it’s best to meet with a health care provider to consider various approaches to treatment.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD
Recommended: “Rewire you Brain: Think your way to a better life” by Dr. Arden.