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What does it mean to lean into anxiety?

Anxiety is a helpful and adaptive function of the brain that alerts us to danger or gives us pause at times when something may be threatening to our survival. One could argue that this very function is in large part the

reason for our survival as a species. After all, it is anxiety that activates our fight or flight response.

Yet our brains can get cluttered with confusing thoughts and danger signals that seem

to lead us in unhelpful directions. How could the thought of throwing up trigger

the exact same fight or flight response as seeing a mountain lion on a hiking

trail? The answer is complex and involves so many biological and

environmental factors that lead to a habitual brain and body

response. We could sum it up by saying that there is helpful/adaptive

anxiety and unhelpful/exaggerated anxiety. So what are our options

for remedying this problematic pattern?


Simply avoiding the anxiety triggers is one answer some people

would offer. But the slippery slope of avoidance just leads to more

and more situations, people and things that need to be avoided

thus creating a small and restrictive world. So if going away from

the anxiety-provoking situations feeds the anxiety, what else is available?

Ultimately it becomes evident that being completely free of anxiety triggers

is out of reach. A decent alternative is learning to be okay in the presence

of them, which surprisingly leads to less and less false alarms because of

the corrective experiences along the way. And the pathway for getting to this

sweet spot involves leaning into the anxiety; gently and bravely going toward the fear with your thoughts and actions. Cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy provide us with an evidence-based framework for doing just this.

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