Surf Your Anxiety

By Brian Ott, PhD, Core Faculty in the Clinical Psychology Department October 05, 2015

Mental Health Tips from William James College Faculty: Surf Your Anxiety by Brian Ott, PhD

Our bodies have an emergency system that does a wonderful job helping us survive life- threatening situations. It works automatically and involves the secretion of adrenaline and other hormones into the blood stream, which heighten our senses, tense our muscles, speed up our hearts and generally get us ready to fight off the threat or run away from it. Unfortunately, these emergency responses, which are wonderful for escaping the jaws of a dog, can become attached to non-life-or-death situations - a case of a good response popping out when it does no good. These unhelpful associations occur through natural processes of learning. Typically, an individual will be frightened by the sudden experience of anxiety. This may result in efforts to control the anxiety and avoid the situations that trigger them. But research has shown us that:

  • These biological responses cannot be controlled by rational talk or usual relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or yoga – the power of the emergency hormones easily overwhelms the effect of these approaches. 
  • Efforts to control the responses will therefore fail and often lead to catastrophic thoughts about “being out of control”. 
  • Such thoughts then trigger further secretion of emergency hormones and the cycle begins again. 
  • fforts to avoid situations that trigger the emergency response result in a strengthening of both the physical arousal and the tendency to avoid. 

The good news is that our understanding of human learning processes provides us with a solution which dates back over a hundred years. The researcher Ivan Pavlov taught us that when a conditioned physical response is established to a trigger, the only way to decrease that response is through prolonged exposure to the trigger. Instead of fighting the anxiety, one must learn to go with it or “surf it in”. When one approaches the situation in this manner, the anxiety will slowly drop over time and not be as high the next time you confront it.

Tips for Managing Anxiety

  • Identify the situation that triggers your anxiety 
  • Build a ladder of these types of situations by varying elements such as time to exposure, distance from the trigger, and characteristics of the trigger.
  • Start at a point somewhere in the middle of the ladder where you do feel uncomfortable, but won’t run away. 
  • Hold the trigger constant. 
  • Focus your attention on the trigger – no distractions. 
  • Wait for the anxiety to decrease and eventually bottom out at a much lower level. 

The more you try to rationally control the physical aspects of anxiety, the worse it gets. Stop avoiding anxiety provoking situations. Move towards them. Surf them in.