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.