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How can we handle visible anxiety symptoms?
August 01, 2011

Simple Ways to Tame Anxiety

August 1, 2011
Volume 11, Issue 8

How can we cope with visible anxiety symptoms like sweating and blushing? Is there a good way to stop these symptoms? This month's issue of Anxiety Coach® takes a look at this question.

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How can we handle visible anxiety?

I periodically get calls from people who have gotten caught up in a struggle with some observable physical symptom to the extent that they come to fear and dread it. They're looking for a way to make it stop.

Blushing. Sweating. Voice cracking. Trembling, sometimes. These are the most common ones.

These are generally considered to be a part of Social Anxiety Disorder, because they usually only occur when there are people around to observe them. A person feels embarrassed by the blushing or sweating, comes to think of it as a personal defect, fears that others will observe it and make negative judgements.

So he or she tries all kinds of ways to "stop doing that". And it usually happens more.

It doesn't happen more despite their best efforts to stop it. It happens more because of their best efforts to stop it.

"Don't Yawn"

If you've ever taken an undergraduate psychology class, you probably attended a lecture on suggestibility, in which the instructor asked the class not to yawn, and yawned broadly to reinforce the message.

Then a bunch of people yawned. Others clenched their jaw, trying to prevent it.

Our brains are built that way. With respect to simple, reflexive physiological responses, like yawning, your brain doesn't really know the meaning of the word "no". "Don't yawn" translates the same as " Please yawn". You picture a yawn, and it starts.

The effect is even stronger with some activity you feel strongly about. A person who's uncomfortable with heights won't have trouble walking on a typical sidewalk. Raise that sidewalk up 20 feet, and make it a pathway around the outside of a motel, and he might feel less steady on his feet, walking more slowly, and touching the wall or railing, trying to counter his own concern with "don't fall".

Don't Do That!

The truth is, there isn't a single step you can take to quickly and effectively stop yourself from blushing, sweating, or cracking your voice. The more you respond to these experiences with a "don't do that" instruction, the more likely they are to continue.

Some people fall into a very difficult pattern of desperately struggling against these experiences. They wear clothes that are less likely to show the sweat; they use makeup to try to hide the blushing; they stay out of the light, and seek to avoid attention at any cost; they avoid public speaking, and leadership positions. They try so hard to hide their problem, only to find it getting worse.

You can really paint yourself into a corner this way. This is a classic instance of making things worse by trying to make them better.

Putting Out Fires with Gasoline

If you think you're pouring buckets of water on a fire, when those buckets are really filled with gasoline (yes, you'd really have to have a bad head cold for this metaphor to work), you're going to find the fire burning higher and hotter. And you'd think you had to pour faster. It's only when you realize that it's gasoline that you can look for something better.

You might not know how to put that fire out, but the first step is always the same: put down the buckets! Stop making it worse!

That's the first step here. Of course you don't want to sweat or blush or whatever. You feel embarrassed and ashamed of it. And, if it's become a frequent occurrence for you, you need to do something different.

The first step is always the same. Put down the buckets! Anything is better than fueling the fire.

And after that?

My experience is that most people can shrink this problem down to an occasional nuisance rather than the bane of their existence. The path out varies for each individual, but it always involves doing things very differently, because you will get the same results if you keep repeating the same actions.

The way out involves several new responses.

1. The person needs to review what he/she wants from life, especially in the target circumstances, and find ways to pursue those values. They've been acting as if the most important thing in life is to stop anxiety, rather than building accomplishments at work, raising happy children, writing a good novel, or whatever activity they value for themselves. What do you want your life to stand for? Surely it's more than just hiding your anxiety!

2. The person needs to cultivate a greater ability to accept, rather than resist, the anxiety symptoms, working with them rather than against them.

3. Practice with the situations and cues that invite the anxiety, rather than avoiding them, in a program of planned progressive exposure.

See you next month!


Dave Carbonell, Ph.D.

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