Are Coping Skills Really Helping You?11 December 2021
Ben Eckstein :
Last year we joined the masses and brought home a pandemic puppy-a Boston terrier named Moose. He was cute, he was cuddly, he tolerated our kids jumping all over him, and he barely destroyed anything. It was suspiciously easy. But, a little while later, we realized that our perfect puppy had some insecurities. In our pandemic hibernation, we hadn't socialized him properly. When visitors would come through the gate to our backyard, he would lose his mind, barking and barking until we'd eventually bring him inside. We tried everything to calm him-we'd talk soothingly to him, pick him up, pet him, demonstrate to him conspicuously that our visitors were not a threat. All to no avail. So we enlisted a dog trainer, Mike.
Mike told us the story of another client he had seen recently. When he entered her house, the woman had the radio blaring loudly in the background. As this was their first training session, Mike was wary of making a poor first impression by asking her to turn it down. So he asked himself: "How do you get someone to turn down the radio without asking them to turn down the radio?" The answer: You speak so softly that they have no choice but to turn it down so they can hear you.
Most of us opt to do more when we should do less. We talk over the noise, getting louder and louder in order to be heard. We jump into action and try to wrestle our feelings into submission, when what we really need is to stop and let our emotional system do its job. Moose didn't need us to soothe him; he just needed us to show him that we could be secure and steady, giving him the confidence to get calm on his own.
Anxiety sometimes behaves in peculiar ways. When we try to make it go away, it ramps up instead. This is because we're not actually sending the message that we think we are. We say "calm down"; our brain hears "something is wrong." It misinterprets our response as an indicator of danger. And who can blame it? After all, if there were no danger, why would we be jumping to action? We know anxiety can't hurt us, so why would we need to do something to make it go away? Each of these actions, intended to reduce the feeling, paradoxically serves to confirm the presence of danger to our brain. The more we fight it, the more anxious we get. The more we insist that everything is OK, the more our brain panics in perceived danger.
What's the Alternative?
If we allow our feelings to exist without leaping into action, we demonstrate to our brain that the anxiety we're feeling is a false alarm, it's unimportant, a non-event. This gives us the opportunity to learn something new. For example, if I touch a doorknob and immediately wash my hands, my brain assumes that the doorknob was dangerous and that I am OK solely because I washed my hands. If instead I touch a doorknob and don't wash my hands, then my brain gets to come to a more accurate conclusion: the doorknob wasn't dangerous to begin with.
While recalibrating our brain's alarm system is useful, we can actually learn something even more important in these moments: We are capable. Our anxiety does not need to be controlled. If we are willing to experience discomfort, we have the capacity to get through our anxiety without bending our lives into its service. Touching doorknobs is good, but living with the freedom of being untethered from anxiety is better.
Most behavior is not inherently good or bad. Coping skills are theoretically wonderful tools, but, unfortunately, they are often applied to anxiety in unhelpful ways. Our goal is not to control the uncontrollable by trying to make anxiety go away; it's to learn to respond to our anxiety in ways that are useful and effective. By cultivating willingness to persist in the midst of uncomfortable experiences, we can learn that we have the capacity to manage anxiety after all. Like Moose, we just need opportunities to learn that we are capable.
(Ben Eckstein, LCSW, is a therapist specializing in the treatment of OCD and Anxiety Disorders).