In this article, I discuss how lasting reductions in anxiety occur as a result of first learning that you can perform effectively while experiencing anxiety.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

For most clients in anxiety counselling with whom I work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, their primary goal is either to eliminate their anxiety or reduce its intensity to a more manageable level. Because anxiety is an emotion built into us through evolution to prepare us to deal with dangers and challenges, eliminating it is an impossible goal to achieve.

However, reducing the intensity of this emotion to a manageable level is an achievable goal if it is approached in the right manner. In the following sections, I will discuss the incorrect approach many clients take in trying to achieve lasting reductions in anxiety and then present a better approach which ‘gets the mission accomplished’.

The incorrect approach to reducing your anxiety: Make reducing your anxiety your primary goal

Many people who want to reduce their anxiety make the mistake of focusing on reducing anxiety as their primary goal. Please note that anxiety reduction is a very reasonable and understandable goal to have because for many people the level of anxiety they are experiencing causes them significant discomfort. However, focusing on it as your primary goal can cause problems. Most notably, focusing on the pursuit of this goal actually can interfere with attaining it.

The reason is that although lasting reductions in anxiety typically occur the more you expose yourself to anxiety-provoking situations, this process known as desensitization or habituation usually takes time and cannot be forced. The result is that focusing on desensitization/habituation as your primary goal often leads to frustration as your exposure efforts may not appear to be producing any immediate benefits.

As a result, I recommend to my clients that during exposure they focus on a different goal which is more likely to lead to immediate tangible benefits which will eventually be accompanied by the added benefit of lasting reductions in anxiety.

The correct approach to reducing your anxiety: Make performing effectively with anxiety your primary goal

The goal to focus on as your primary goal during exposure should be gathering evidence that you can perform effectively with anxiety. Having such evidence leads to what is known as ‘inhibitory learning’.

For example, if you experience strong anxiety in social situations like a party you could measure how well you engage in various social skills at a party despite experiencing uncomfortable levels of anxiety. After the party, you could evaluate your performance on skills such as initiating conversations, making eye contact and listening. I usually suggest using a 1-10 rating scale and to have as many performance measures as possible so that you can notice improvement in various areas.

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The primary benefit of focusing on inhibitory learning rather than desensitization/habituation is that it is easy to see immediate progress on inhibitory learning whereas desensitization/habituation takes more time to occur. This gives you the sense that your exposure efforts are paying off which in turn leads you to have more positive thoughts in anxiety-provoking situations.

These positive thoughts help to keep your anxiety at a lower and more manageable level in these situations which makes it easier to ‘hang in there’ to let exposure do its work in achieving desensitization/habituation. In contrast, focusing on desensitization/habituation as the goal often leads to negative self-talk such as ‘my anxiety isn’t going down’ and ‘I can’t function with my anxiety’. More intense anxiety follows from these thoughts, often so intense that giving up on exposure ensues.

The bottom line to keep in mind if you’re grappling with anxiety issues: Definitely make anxiety reduction one of your goals. Just don’t focus on it when you’re doing what it takes to achieve this goal. Focus instead on your ability to perform effectively despite your anxiety levels being higher than you would like.

May you learn that you can perform effectively with anxiety as a way to reduce it,

Dr. Pat