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Learned Anxiety, and How to Unlearn It
By now you’ve probably heard of Pavlov’s classical conditioning and his experiment with bells and dogs. But in case you haven’t, I’ll recap it below:
Pavlov used dogs to demonstrate how beings can be conditioned to react to certain stimuli. He found that a bell by itself did not cause a reaction in the dog. However, when he consistently paired the bell along with food he learned that the bell suddenly could elicit a reaction from the dogs (drooling). This is the power of association.
You may be wondering, what does this have to do with anxiety and panic attacks?
It’s simple, anxiety can be learned. Let’s talk about paired association. In Pavlov’s experiment, he used a neutral stimulus — a bell — and paired it with an unconditioned stimulus (one that produces a response naturally) — meat. Over time the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with food and began to salivate at the sound of the bell. Similarly, when you pair anxiety with a neutral stimulus (in this case the neutral stimulus can be any event, location, or object) you can learn to associate that stimulus with anxiety. In this way, something that was previously considered non-threatening is now a trigger.
For example, let’s say a panic attack comes out of the blue while you are at the grocery store. This is what is called an ‘un-cued’ panic attack. Since you experience your attack in the grocery store, the store now becomes a conditioned stimulus (one the produces a learned reaction) and you’re afraid of it. Now, when you think of going to the grocery store you become anxious. This response is a ‘cued’ panic attack — since it no longer comes out of the blue.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Not unlike joy, anger, or sadness.
Anxiety can reach into all aspects of a person’s life. While mild anxiety is disconcerting and uncomfortable, extreme anxiety is debilitating. Some people are more susceptible to anxiety, but with a plan, all sufferers of anxiety can learn to manage.
It’s natural to want to avoid situations and environments that make you anxious. In the short term, you might even feel better. However, the relief is temporary.
With learned anxiety, avoidance is not always the best course of action. Classical conditioning can be the catalyst to developing severe anxiety, but avoidance is the key to maintaining it. If you have a panic-inducing experience with dogs and then continue to avoid all dogs for eternity, you never open yourself up to experience the dogs who are friendly, and soft, and don’t bark when you approach them. You learned to fear dogs in that first incident — but you maintain your fear of dogs through avoidance.
So what can you do?
Tackling anxiety can be a daunting and seemingly endless task. However, there are many resources and exercises out there designed to help you.
Here are five steps to help you work through a panic attack:
Step one: Just breathe.
Breathe deeply and intentionally. This panic attack is not going to hurt you, your mind is just speeding up and reacting to things that aren’t actually threats. Take control. Slow your breathing, slow your mind.
Step two: Stop and think.
When your brain is going 100 miles a minute, it’s impossible to get any semblance of order. So stop. Take control of your thoughts and order them. Make conscious ‘next steps’ to get yourself calm again.
Step three: Fire Debbie Downer.
You wouldn’t hire a negative person to run your life – so stop being that person. Push the negative thoughts from your mind, and tell yourself that you are in control. Focus on the times when you were able to manage stressful situations successfully.
Step four: Don’t be a doormat.
I know this is often easier said than done. However, in order to be in control of your life, you need to stand up for yourself. If you need to leave a situation — do it. If you need help — ask for it. Allowing yourself to stew in a bad situation will not make things better, and no one (important) will be upset with you if you take a moment to blow off steam.
Step five: Relax.
Panic attacks work their way into every muscle of your body, causing you to be tense and rigid. To bring back a sense of calm, tell every muscle in your body to relax. Start with your toes and work your way through each muscle group.
You don’t have to wait for a panic attack to strike before trying these techniques.
Unlearning anxiety takes time and patience, and usually A LOT of support. But take heart, it is possible! With gradual steps, you can regain your confidence in areas that would previously send you reeling. Remember to not be too hard on yourself, you’re a work in progress and you’re doing just fine.