Rethinking anxiety: Learning to face fear | Dawn Huebner | TEDxAmoskeagMillyardWomen



a little anxiety is a good thing I kept telling myself that in the lead-up to today but a little anxiety is good it sharpens our senses and gets us ready to take on challenges a lot of anxiety is another story it's a hindrance rather than a help a lot of anxiety makes it difficult to take productive action it sets off a primitive response deep in our brains the old fight-or-flight response which actually has a third part freeze all three are protective mechanisms with important evolutionary advantages when we're faced with danger but anxieties about perceived danger very different from actual danger and in the case of anxiety fighting fleeing and freezing are all problematic causing us pain preventing us from moving forward making our world small I became a psychologist in 1987 and had my first and only child several years later before you two get too concerned for him poor kid a psychologist MA who gets up and talks about him on a TED stage police know he's an adult now and he's given me permission to tell this story anyway when he was little Eli was anxious he was afraid of the scary characters and Disney movies and haircuts and shots and splinters and bees normal-seeming fears although there were quite a few of them initially we did what most parents do we reassured him and when that didn't work we helped him avoid the things he was afraid of we stopped going to movies we let his hair get shaggy we stayed away from flowers because of bees and rough wood because of splinters but like some weird monster his level of fear continued to grow he started panicking whenever he needed to go outside afraid he might encounter a bee and it became difficult for him to touch anything made of wood life went on as it does in Eli became fascinated by history when he was about 10 we decided to go to Fort Ticonderoga a wooden fort with plenty of splinter potential we did lots of planning he would wear shoes close toed shoes long sleeve shirt long pants no exposed skin we promised him he wouldn't need to touch anything and he was actually really excited to go the day we went was a beautiful 90 degree day we chomped around the fort for hours until we were exhausted my husband and I plopped down on a bench to rest a wooden bench a wooden bench Eli absolutely could not sit on nor could he move himself close enough to sit on one of our laps because he still might touch the bench he couldn't sit on the floor of the fort because it was a wooden floor or leaned against a wall a wooden wall so he stood rivers of sweat running down his face utterly exhausted utterly defeated by his fears he stood because there was nothing else he could do he stood and he sobbed it seems obvious in retrospect that we let things go too far but somehow the view from inside was different we didn't realize how bad things had gotten how debilitating his fears had become not until that moment that pivotal moment when it became crystal clear that we needed help I brought to you like to a therapist who quickly deduced he's 10 years old he's afraid of splinters shots and bees long sharp objects that poke clearly this was a fear of penetration related to get ready for Freud oedipal issues his wish to overthrow his father to have possession of me I said they're listening to this well-respected psychologist thinking how can this possibly help us and the answer was it couldn't so I went on a quest determined to find a way to help my son I landed on cognitive behavioral therapy also known as CBT an approach to treatment based on the premise that we all have an inner triangle based on our thoughts our feelings and our actions the idea is that these are all interrelated our thoughts influence our feelings thoughts and feelings drive our actions actions link back to what we think and believe and so on so the way to change a problematic feeling like paralyzing anxiety is to change the associated thoughts and actions that made sense and it was specific it give us something to work on rather than continuing to help him avoid the things he was afraid of when he did he lie to change what he was doing to pay attention to the action part of the triangle we needed him to go to the movies go outside touchwood to see that he could do these things without getting hurt changing what he was doing would help change what he was thinking and his feelings would change from there we decided to start with B's and went on a campaign to get Eli to go outside there's maybe 11 at this point and it isn't much of a stretch to say that his life revolved around Legos big sets complicated castles and forts and islands and ships he would do just about anything for money for Legos you can probably guess where this is going I bribed him just go outside I said you're not going to get stung and if you do I'll give you $10 going to pause the story for a moment I made two major mistakes without intervention the first was telling him in a definitive way he wasn't going to get stung how crazy is that how could I possibly know whether or not he gets done what I should have told him was that a sting was unlikely which would have been more accurate and also more useful because an important part of overcoming anxiety is learning to take a chance to take action even though you feel unsure to be nervous and do something anyway my other mistake was offering a reward for the bad thing happening what I should have been rewarding was his the part of the CBT triangle I wanted him to be paying attention to the action I should have rewarded his going outside I could have bought the Lego said he wanted and given him a single piece every time he went out that would have been rewarding his bravery his willingness to face his fear step into the uncertainty not the bee sting but I didn't know then what I know now so I did the wrong thing all that would accomplish something important got him to go outside my husband was on the same page dangling the same carrot a bigger carrot if you go outside he said and get stung I'll give you twenty dollars so Eli went outside with great trepidation but fueled by the possibility of a payoff and he did get stung something like five minutes after we told him he wouldn't handle the sting itself pretty well which is typically how it goes the possibility of a bad thing is often worse than the actual bad thing and he was delighted that we had to that we now had to fork over $30 that was half a Lego ship back there money well spent as far as we were concerned because he saw that he could survive the sting he went outside more willingly after that nervous but liking the financial gain and gradually his fears abated it wasn't the perfect cure although he did get over his fear of long sharp objects that poked enough to take up fencing which was which was enough to propel me further into CBT as a theoretical orientation I learned more about how to use cognitive behavioral strategies without the bribes and it transformed the way I worked with children anxious children who got better so much better that I decided to write a self-help book to bring these skills to a wider audience my first book was for anxious kids what to do when you worry too much and it took off sales were higher than my publisher and I ever anticipated and then I wrote another book and another all teaching cognitive behavioral strategies directly to children empowering them to help themselves I started being contacted by the national media and by parenting groups and professional groups wanting me to come speak but oddly enough I was never available the timing of a conference wasn't quite right yet other plans couldn't take time off from my practice these were the excuses I gave one after another as I turned down invitation after invitation I'm sorry I just can't make it I turned down public speaking invitations for two years I was aware at some level of what I was doing I knew I was afraid I would fall flat get tongue-tied not be interesting enough or funny enough I told myself that public speaking just wasn't my thing and that that was okay but eventually the irony of this particular fear jumped up and slapped me in the face here I was a psychologist with a best-selling book about anxiety a national expert on the treatment of anxiety anxiety the very thing that was keeping me from standing up and talking about it I'd like to be able to tell you my first thought was great this will be an opportunity to practice all those skills I've been teaching but I'd be lying my first thought was if I want to be able to face myself in the mirror I need to do something about this one of the primary cognitive behavioral interventions for dealing with anxiety is exposure with the aim of desensitizing to whatever we're afraid of let's imagine we're putting together a tool box exposures our first tool how's it work well think about jumping into a swimming pool it's cold right but if you stay in the water start swimming or playing or whatever pretty soon it feels fine you've desensitized the waters just as cold as it was when you first jumped in but you don't notice the cold anymore you've gotten used to it one version of this exposure technique is called flooding it's like exposure on steroids the literal equivalent of jumping into a cold pool all at once just deal with it afraid of spiders plunge your hand into a jar of them afraid of germs go to a pediatricians office touch all the toys in the waiting room rub your hands on your face the technique actually works if you can get yourself to do it but flooding isn't the way most people choose to face their fears it's kind of harsh fortunately there's another version of exposure more gradual method the equivalent of slowly lowering yourself into the pool taking one step in and letting your feet get used to it and then taking another step and another it was this gradual exposure this step-by-step method that I decided to use I set up a hierarchy for myself and started small toes in the water stuff raising my hand at conferences commenting during group meetings eventually agreeing to give a brief talk to a small group writing the whole thing out holding my script reading it verbatim I forced myself to look up that was a triumph and slowly he mistakingly but dogged Lee I made my way through this hierarchy of challenges bigger groups letting go of the script culminating in this so there's so there's hope not just for me but for all of us because all of us are wired to shrink away from things that might hurt us that's a good thing shrinking away from things that might hurt us as long as we're accurate in our assessment of what's going to hurt us and how serious the harm will be but all too often something goes wrong we lose the ability to gauge risk and we begin to assume that if we're afraid we must be in danger even when we aren't fortunately there's another tool we can put in the toolbox we can learn to recognize and correct thinking mistakes what's a thinking mistake it's a misperception a misperception that fuels anxiety there are three common ones the first overestimating likelihood here's what this one sounds like if a bad thing could happen it will happen I know it and even though it hasn't happened yet I'm pretty sure it will and anyway I'm not taking any chances which is closely linked to thinking mistake number two catastrophizing that bad thing that's going to happen it's not going to be a little bad thing it's going to be a big bad thing an awful thing the worst ever I'll never get through it that last part that's actually thinking mistake number three self-doubt the bad things going to happen it's going to be awful I'll never survive it forget it I'm not going to do it sound familiar we all have these thoughts anticipating the worst envisioning failure under estimating our own resourcefulness telling ourselves we can't cope but our thoughts are just our thoughts not necessarily useful not necessarily true and when we have a mistaken thought we don't need to hold on to it we can toss it aside or better yet correct it it helps to externalize anxiety which is actually our third tool this one involves thinking about your worry or fear like a pest a little creature whose sole aim is to make you feel scared every time you listen to that worry every time you chase it down it's what-if rabbit-hole and follow the rules it sets up don't go there don't touch that don't do that every time you listen to your worry you're feeding it and every time you feed your worry you're making it stronger but when you don't obey you're worried when you talk back to it challenge it correct it well that's a win for you I've actually presented the tools in reverse order so I'm going to flip them around to show you how a person might use them a child let's imagine you're eight years old and you happen to be afraid of going up stairs alone because there might be one of those scary dolls that comes to life or a ghost or maybe you're not sure what you're afraid of you just don't want to go up there but let's say you've started to learn this skill set so first you'd externalize your anxiety tell yourself that's my worry talking to me I don't need to listen second you'd find incorrect you're thinking mistakes a chance of something grabbing me is really small I've been upstairs a ton of times and nothing Bad's happened third you'd remember the pool you've got to get in you can jump in just go upstairs all at once or you can do it gradually practice going up just a little bit at a time if your mom can stand at the bottom of the stairs while you go up and back down again and then go up and touch all the doorknobs and come back down and then maybe your mom can move further away while you go further up and stay a bit longer the goal when it comes to facing fear is facing it not waiting to not feel afraid not accommodating the fear not wishing it away or even breathing it away you have to do what you're afraid of while you're afraid to see that your fear is a false alarm it isn't giving you useful information and you don't have to obey it it's a feeling an uncomfortable feeling but a feeling and like all feelings it's temporary you your kids anyone can learn to do this to start treating anxiety like background noise like a jackhammer blasting away outside sure you can hear it you can't help but hear it but you don't have to rail against it or remain frozen in place until it stops just let it be turn your attention to something else that's where deep breathing comes in and mindfulness exercises and various forms of distraction these are additional tools best used not to avoid the things we're afraid of but to help us settle our minds and our bodies so that inner alarm that false alarm can quiet itself allowing us to remember that being afraid is not the same as being in danger so we have a choice we can follow our instincts shrink away capitulate to our fears and stay stuck or we can face our fears move towards them anxiety is like a Chinese finger trap that woven tube you put your fingers into and the more you pull against it the more stuck you get the trick is you have to relax your hands stop fighting against the tube move into it and suddenly you're free thank you

39 comments

  1. I have mild social anxiety, I can see how exposure could eventually help me to feel more confortable, however if I were to put my hand in a jar with roaches, I’d probably develop PTSD, I can’t even think about it 😅

  2. Wrong!! My friend had a panic atttack.. His blood preasure got to high.. He had a aneurysm and he had a massive stroke and lost his eye

  3. I wish my anxiety was fear of needles or even public speaking. I have anxiety about women. I was not born with this, but acquired it by constant rejections and losing. You and all other so-called experts provide nothing. Facing my fear and doing public speaking can be done. However, I can't force a woman to give me a chance!

  4. Dawn's voice and demeanor are so soothing.Her eloquence and examples have given me such great ideas. Fantastic presentation ! I could listen to you all day. Your patients are so fortunate to have your gentle help. Thak you !

  5. Watched this video in the throws of a panic attack. Gave me some things to think about and helped to settle me a bit.

  6. I've been dealing with debilitating anxiety for the past six months or so, and this 20 minute talk is definitively the best resource I've come across. I'm so pleased you were able to conquer your anxiety so you could help us with ours. Cheers 👏🏻

  7. My anxiety revolves around future… I'm constantly worrying that I'll be alone and depressed for the rest of my life. I don't know how to overcome this… 😣😓

  8. A perfect TED Talk. Great flow and structure, perfect amount of personal story and science. Well done!

  9. i wish she never stops talking, she has a really calm voice, makes me feel comfortable, thank you !

  10. What kind of clinical psychologist is still taking the Oedipus complex seriously? Of all the parts of Freudian psychology to retain, that's the least worthwhile.

  11. This was incredible! great structure, simple to understand and providing actionable steps to take. Dawn is true representation of the standards of which every TED talk should go by. Thank you for your knowledge!

  12. Western psychology is so limited
    No matter how much u talk about it nothing beats when u meditate

  13. How bout GAD. The disorder is way worse. It just happens for no reason. Even if you talk yourself out of it you still feel it all over your body.

  14. I've just realized that what I usually do is pushing away my thoughts because I'm afraid of them and I think it will stop it but my brain knows I'm afraid of something so I'm getting anxious anyway.

  15. What I think about this it's exposure like you have to fully open yourself what you afraid of and face what's gonna come and once you get used to it your life will be much easier

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