By Diana Flores, LCPC
Imagine this scenario: a little boy is playing in his yard and suddenly a big dog runs up to the fence and starts barking very loudly. The little boy is caught off guard and he immediately feels scared and in a panic state. His “flight, freeze or fight” mechanism kicks in and he finds the ability to run into the house to seek comfort from his mom, his mom gives him a hug and tells him that he will be ok and his mom then tells him to go watch his favorite TV show so he can feel better. You will learn in therapy that this boy’s behavior is not unusual and most people when confronted with a scary event will learn to avoid the situation (run away from the dog), they will seek reassurance from others (mom saying to the boy that he will be ok), or they will distract themselves so they do not have to deal with the actual anxiety trigger (watch TV). Most people will argue that these safety seeking behaviors do help. They are not wrong these behaviors are helpful for that moment in time; however they are harmful in the long run. If the little boy continues to avoid, seek reassurance or distract himself every time he is around a barking dog, then he will never learn to actually handle the stressor and work through it. The consequences of not being able to handle a stressors are huge, not only will the boy spend his life being scared of barking dogs, what started as a fear of dog, could easily turn into a fear of many other things. The key to feeling better in the long run is to actually allowing yourself to experience the fear. Exposing yourself to a fearful situation could seem “crazy” and completely inappropriate for some people. However, when done gradually and with the help of a trained therapist it is essential for long term gains. For example, instead of telling the little boy that he is going to be ok, and instead of asking him to distract himself by watching TV, if the mom told him to go back outside and to sit down and simply listen to the dog bark. The boy will experience a peak in anxiety. However over time his brain will realize that there isn’t a real danger and slowly the boy’s anxiety will begin to come down. The boy will quickly realize that even though he does not prefer to be around barking dogs, he can still handle this fear. Allowing yourself to feel the fear is the answer to learning to handle anxiety.