One of my young clients told me a story. She was at a summer camp that was located on a lake out in the woods. During the week some camp staff saw a snake in the lake. They chased the snake away but the discovery became the talk of the camp. Summer camps often feature water activities so a snake in the lake was of great interest. Nonetheless, after the initial excitement, life at camp resumed to normal. Kids were swimming, canoes crossed back and forth, and boys did cannonballs to splash the girls.
Except for one young camper. She never went back in the lake. She was convinced she had a “snake problem”.
So far, this is the story I heard. Now permit me to use some imagination that comes from working with lots of very anxious people. If you think you have a snake problem the first thing you do is try to avoid the snake. This is what the young camper did. Well, she is out in the middle of the woods. It won’t be long before her imagination leads to thoughts of snakes in other places. She might start to avoid getting off the trail, being by herself or any unlit spot that might harbor one of the slithery creatures. She would probably start asking, “Have you seen a snake?” “Do you think there are any snakes in my cabin?” The more she worried about snakes the more potential problems would come to mind and all she would need to do to avoid them.
Here is the fundamental problem for this young camper. She thought she had a “snake problem.” She did not. She had an anxiety problem. It was safe enough to go back into the lake. All the other campers were back in the lake having fun. Of course, there could be a snake somewhere. That was always a possibility. The actual danger from a snake was very small. The problem with anxiety is that it insists that things are dangerous until “proven” safe but people without anxiety operate on the idea that it is safe until “proven” dangerous.
Compounding her wrong assumption is that she started to behave as if she had a snake problem. These behaviors are called “safety behaviors” because they are attempts to reduce the potential threat. First, she avoided the lake. There is nothing wrong with this when there is an actual danger but a big problem if there isn’t. They are a problem because each time someone gives into a safety behavior they are confirming to their anxiety there is a threat and then they miss the chance to disprove it. Anxiety always wants more. As it grows people develop more and more safety behaviors, inadvertently trading immediate relief for a long-term problem.
If you have an anxiety problem you approach it completely opposite of how you would a “snake problem”. If you have a real snake problem, you need to react to the danger and resist being harmed. When I say real, I mean a venomous (not poisonous as my zoologist daughter informs me) snake curled to strike within reach. I am 100% behind avoiding that! However, when you have an anxiety problem, you must do the opposite. You must not resist the anxiety. In fact, if possible, invite it. It is a false alarm and will probably lessen or dissipate if you don’t “brace” for or “resist” it. Just let it be there, even welcome it. If I know there is a fire alarm test in my building when I hear it I think, “Oh, there is the test, glad to know it works.” Then I ignore it and go about my business. I absolutely do NOT act as if there is any danger. Could this be an actual alarm from a fire? Yes, but it is safe enough for me to ignore.
When I treat people for anxiety disorders part of the process is triggering the anxiety on purpose, not resisting or fighting the feeling, and allowing it to remain until it naturally begins to dissipate. While doing this, the goal is to NOT do anything to make it safer. It is not a “snake problem.” Don’t behave like it is.
This is how you respond to an anxiety problem. The key is to stop reacting as if it is a “snake problem”. You don’t have to be 100% convinced because you can’t know for sure if there might be a snake. You have to just be willing to accept the risk and enjoy the lake with your friends.