Doing the Opposite: A Secret to Defeating Fear & Anxiety

Anxious Depressed man in tunnelFear is an important emotion. It can help keep us safe and motivate us to do something to protect our well-being.

But if we are carried away by fear, it can override—instead of helping us maintain—our well-being. The key is balance. And, how we react to our feeling of fear is a big part of getting to that balance. The secret key to deal with fear and get to balanced behavior is what this article will focus on.

First, recognize this one truth: The emotion of fear and anxiety has corresponding actions. Now, the main action that goes with fear is running away or avoiding. When you feel you are in danger, you avoid or leave or run away. Your fear is telling you to take some kind of action. What is it telling you to do? Most often, Run! It’s like the cog of fear pushes a cog of fearful behaviors.Anger Cog Moving Action

Doing the Opposite Is the Key to Overcoming Fear, Anxiety

But what if we reversed the mechanism? What if we acted in ways that actually diminished fear?

That’s the good news: since an emotion corresponds with an action, you can change the emotion by changing the action. In other words, not only do emotions cause actions, but actions cause emotions.  And you can change your emotion by changing your action. This is called opposite action and it’s helped many people with problem fear.

Knowing When to Use Opposite Action

For most of my patients, the problem is this: they truly believe they are in danger. And I tell them, “fear is justified whenever the situation is a threat to your life, or your health, or your well-being.”  But often, that distinction is hard to understand.

So imagine you and I are in a building walking down a long hall, and at the end of the hall there’s a room. And in the room there’s a ferocious lion.  And if I said, “Open the door and go in the room,” would fear by justified? Yes. The lion is in the room, you open the door and the lion gets you.

Now let’s imagine it’s the next day and someone took the lion out of the room overnight.  There’s nothing in the room now. Is fear justified? What do you think?  So you have to ask yourself now, “If there’s a room down the end of the hall and there’s no lion in it, is your life threatened? Is your health threatened? Is your well-being threatened?” So what’s the answer? No, no and no. Fear is not justified. Maybe fear is understandable—it’s understandable if the lion was there yesterday you might still have some fear. However, it’s not justified.

Do the Opposite, or Get Stuck in Fear

Now it’s the next day. There’s no lion in the room.  But you’re still afraid because there was one yesterday. So what’s the opposite action to take to get rid of the anxiety and fear?  The opposite action would be to not avoid.  The opposite action would be to open the door and walk in the room.  Or if you’re in the room, the opposite action would be to stay in the room and not run away.

So opposite action is just the opposite of running away or avoiding. It’s staying or entering or going.

The reason opposite action is so important to freeing you from the grip of fear is that if there’s no lion in the room and you run away, your fear is never going to go away because your brain will never learn that there’s no lion in the room.  You will get stuck being afraid of the room. Why will you stay afraid?  Because you never find out there’s no lion in the room.

So opposite action works because it gets you to go into the room and you find out there’s no lion.  In other words, you find out it’s safe. In effect, you find out the emotion is not justified and once your brain has that figured out, fear will go down.

Warning: Half-Hearted Opposite Action Only Makes Things Worse

Think about what you are afraid of doing, what you hesitate to do and have learned to not even try. What would be the opposite action? And would that action be enough?

What if you only did the opposite action half way? What if you went down the hallway, put your hand on the door knob, turned it, pulled the door open for a few seconds, and then shut it? Would fear increase or decrease?

You’d probably get more afraid. Why? Because the truth that the room was safe would never be experienced, so your brain would hold onto the story that the lion was still there. Would fear really change? Probably not.

So that’s halfway opposite action and that does not work.  Doing the opposite action requires stepping into and staying in that room.

At first, the feeling of fear will probably increase with opposite action. But just staying, not doing anything else but paying attention, your fear would then start to decrease.  Your mind starts working more intelligently, more reasonably, and your start to become free from fear.

Opposite Action Is Too Scary? Get Support!

It is scary to face our fears: That’s just true by definition. And that’s why it’s important to have experienced support, to learn tools to help you get through the fears, especially in the beginning, and to have a plan where you move at the right pace for you.

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