"I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders." ~ Hebrew Proverb
I have never liked driving. I didn't get my full licence until I was in my early twenties. This is because every time I got on the road I was absolutely terrified. I was terrified mostly of operating something so much larger than than I was, of not being able to anticipate the actions of others, and of going anywhere too fast.
When I got my licence, I thought, okay that's over with, and now I never have drive again. This seems now like the exactly the opposite direction that my thoughts should have been going. My mother advised me (much to my annoyance) that the only way I was going to get over my fear of being on the road is if I got on the road. I'd have to go on the freeway for small stretches at least and I'd have to practice until my reflexes and my understanding of the road got better. I hated every moment of it, but in the end, it did get better. If for nothing else, than for necessity.
I still have days when, if I have to go to a new place, and I'm alone, and it's dark and raining, or I have to find street parking (which is an absolute battle in a city like mine), I'll be nervous. Sometimes that nervousness is debilitating and makes me feel nauseated. Most times, there is no way around it.
Therapists have long encouraged a particular type of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy known as Exposure Therapy. In exposure therapy a patient is exposed to their stressor without the context of danger in order to overcome their anxiety. It is used quite a lot in specific phobias and even in post traumatic stress disorder. The thinking is that once the threat of the stressor is removed, the patient is able to exert some control over their anxiety and through a series of increasing steps, eventually the fear will dissipate. It has had some very cool applications as well.
I have been thinking a lot about this idea of the constant exposure to stimuli that we would rather avoid in real life. Social media and how close the world is now, has made it increasingly difficult to get away. It's a rather romantic notion to be able to start anew somewhere away from all the things that bother us. That's not possible, nor is it, in some respects, wise.
I like to think that being exposed to the things and people we'd rather not deal with is a way of building up emotional immunity. It helps us home in our coping mechanisms so that over time, feeling disembodied, out of control and anxious starts to fade. We start to be able to handle it a little bit better. Running away is often easy and safe. Being present and staying with that discomfort is often difficult and undesirable.
In his book "Antifragile", Nassim Nicolas Taleb coins this concept of anti-fragility. Things that are fragile, often break when exposed to stressors. Things that are resilient often stay the same. Things that are anti-fragile gain from chaos - they get better. While not all things can be classified as chaotic, they certain can feel like it when your internal sense of control is shaken. Exposure then, tests the emotional boundaries that we have and can help us modulate our reactions, helping us to "get better" over time. It appears to be a way of building up your body's immune response on a psychological level.
Last week was a rather difficult week at work. My mother called in me while I was in the midst of a nervous breakdown (not really, but tears weren't far) to ask my how my day was going. I told her that it had been difficult and that I was doing things that were actually legitimately beyond my capability. Being ever the teacher of tough lessons, she said to me, "You know life is difficult. So just deal with it and get it done."
Often, the best ways to face our greatest anxieties (or the small, continuous anxieties that plague our daily lives) is to indeed just deal with them. Head on. In her small, and often tough love way, my mother has taught me this. This lesson has been critical for me to learn to handle my own anxiety around certain things and certain people. Over time, it simply becomes easier to go from "not this again" to "fine. it's happening and I'll deal with it because I know how." Truly, it's just a little better to give yourself some credit in that way.
A few good reads on this topic:
Thin Slices of Anxiety on Brain Pickings
A Servant to Servants by Robert Frost
Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler on Farnam Street
Affective Outcomes on Virtual Reality Exposure for Anxiety and Specific Phobias: A Meta Analysis (Parsons and Rizzo) in the Journal of Behavour