Anxiety and Risk Acceptance Part 5: Rewiring the Anxious Brain

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So here’s another of the most common questions I get on my “Rewiring the Anxious Brain” video. People ask “What if the dog bites you?”
 
Now in that video I was explaining how when you avoid something, it makes your anxiety go up, and this is really harmful when you avoid something that feels dangerous but is actually safe — like public speaking, taking a test, or asking for a raise. So I used the example of being afraid of dogs and then explained how gradual exposure can help you overcome that fear as you gradually spend more time with dogs.
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Don't Believe Everything Your Brain Tells You

But of course, when making a video about anxiety, the anxious people watching the video are going to say “But how can I do that? What if the dog bites you?” Many people with anxiety focus on the worst-case scenario, instead of focusing on the potential for growth and healing. And that’s because when your brain is in anxiety mode, it’s attuned to threats; it only notices and pays attention to the potential dangers around you.
 
But dogs can actually be dangerous. So when you’re in anxiety mode, the 1 in 1,000 chance of being bit by a family’s pet dog feels like a serious, immediate, most likely occurrence.
 
In anxiety mode our brain is going to assume the worst about so many things. “What if they all hate me?” “What if I get COVID from my groceries?” “What if the car swerves into my lane?”
 
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in all the what-ifs that you completely lose sight of your goals — like overcoming anxiety or visiting your son who has a dog.
 
But there are some practical steps you can take to manage your brilliantly anxious brain instead of letting anxiety run your life.
 
First, realize that your brain’s most natural job is to prevent dying — to keep you from bad things happening. And unlike the brains of other mammals that are mostly instinctual about these things — running from an immediate threat like a tiger and then relaxing when the threat is gone — our brain has the ability to imagine danger in the future and remember danger that has happened in the past, and that makes us feel like we’re in danger in the present moment.
 
But just because our brain is really good at imagining dangers doesn’t mean that avoiding those fears is the way for us to live a good, happy life. I think most people with anxiety can see how feeling anxious all the time and avoiding stuff is making their lives worse.
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Don't Let Anxiety Make Your Choices

So what I think people are really asking is “Should I spend time with dogs if there’s the risk of getting bit? Should I face my fears if there’s the risk that they could come true?
Is it worth it?”
 
And this is really about living a good life. And I can guarantee one thing: if you let fear and anxiety make your choices, then your life is going to suck. You’ll feel feel out of control and your anxiety will increase.

Choose Acceptable Risk

When I was studying the illustrious field of Recreation Management in college, we had a couple of classes on risk management, on how to run a recreation program that kept people safe while also helping them do cool things like rock climbing and mountain biking.
 
So I learned how to go rock climbing in the safest way — how to tie the right knots and use the right anchors, how to use equipment safely and to make good decisions. And I’ve gone climbing literally thousands of times without any injuries to me or my friends or clients.
 
But even the most carefully prepared and managed activities come with risk. I can control the ropes and anchors and knots, but there’s always the risk of a rock falling and hitting you on the head or of an incredibly rare gear failure.

Remember, There's Always Some Risk

So if all those people who asked “What if the dog bites me?” were actually saying “I can’t face my anxiety because there’s risk involved, and I’ll only do a form of treatment that is 100% safe and comfortable,” then we need to talk about risk and anxiety acceptance. We can’t avoid all risk. Not only would trying ruin our lives, but it’s not possible.
 
So if you avoid everything dangerous by staying home all the time, then you risk dying of obesity, heart disease, and loneliness. By staying home, you miss opportunities to work and play and laugh and love.
 
With COVID, if you choose to socially distance, you protect yourself from the virus, but you miss out on social activities and risk worsening anxiety and depression. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t socially distance; I’m saying that every choice comes with costs, and we need to be intentional about those instead of merely driven by anxiety. Social distancing is a choice that I’m making while wholly accepting the costs.
 
What I am saying is that if you want to live a full and meaningful and happy life, you need to make an intentional choice about what level of risk is acceptable to you in order to live a valued life — a life that you value.
 

Make Choices Based on What You Value

So let’s go back to the rock-climbing example. There are different levels of danger within rock climbing. There’s bouldering and gym climbing, which are the safest. There’s top-roping, which is also really safe but has some outdoor risk factors. Lead climbing comes with other risks, like sprained ankles and bumps and bruises on a fall. And free soloing is very dangerous because if you slip or fall, you splat.
 
Whether to climb and how to climb are choices within my control. But all of these activities come with risks outside of my control, like environmental conditions, falling rocks, and risk of human error.
 
Alex Honnold chooses to free solo. He did what I think is the most impressive physical and mental athletic performance in history: he climbed El Capitan without ropes. But in order to do that, he risked falling to his death.
 
When I climb, I choose to rope up. I’m a very safe climber. I climbed for five to six years, three to four times a week (so thousands of times) without a single accident. But in order to climb I risk sprained ankles, rock falls, and the potential for rare equipment failure. For me, that is my level of acceptable risk because climbing makes my life better. It helps me think clearly and solve problems and develop grit and face my fears.
 
Some people choose not to climb because it doesn’t add value to their life or the value it adds isn’t worth the pain or risk. That’s okay too. As long as it’s a choice.
 
I’ll use another example. I used to be quite afraid of spoiled milk. I had a bad experience once. And ever after that, I was scared to drink milk after it had been opened for a couple of days. For years I just threw the milk out.
 
This was probably an irrational fear, but with limited consequences. For me, it wasn’t worth it at the time to put forth the energy to overcome this fear because the costs were so low that I was able to live a good life and not drink older milk. It wasn’t worth it for me to spend a lot of time facing that anxiety because the cost was like a dollar a week.
 

But with the dog example, if you are missing out on important things in your life, like visiting a family member with a dog or going for walks because you might run into a dog or if you run away screaming and crying from dogs that you see, then at some point, you have to make a conscious choice about what is most valuable for you. This is called risk acceptance, and it’s an important part of managing anxiety.

If you don’t like dogs or you have no friends with dogs or you don’t miss out on much because of dog-avoidance, then cool, make the choice to avoid dogs. But don’t let anxiety decide for you.

Everything has a risk. You have to make choices about risk instead of letting anxiety make your choices for you.
 
Make choices about what you want your life to be about instead of simply trying to avoid anxiety. Choose to live life in a way that runs toward your values instead of simply away from discomfort.
 
Real quick side note. Just because something feels dangerous doesn’t mean that it is. The fear center of our brain is more instinctual than it is rational.
 
Sometimes what feels dangerous isn’t actually dangerous. So for example, I worked at a program that did recreational therapy. We went climbing, rappelling, hiking, biking, horseback riding, river rafting, and did ropes courses. Guess which was our most dangerous activity? Driving.
 
Statistically, just regular driving to and from activities was higher risk than the activities themselves. The second riskiest activity was horseback riding. But what feels the scariest? Rappelling. For sure.
 
Anxiety usually exaggerates the danger of certain types of things, such as heights, wild animals, bugs, and social interactions. Something that is anxiety-inducing can inform you, but don’t let it decide for you.

Go Toward Something Instead of Away From Something

Through practice, knowledge, and gradual exposure we can bring things that normally terrify us into our realm of safety. And this is really important to living the life that we value instead of just a life where we let anxiety run the show.
 
If your family has a dog, a safe dog, then the risk level is low and the benefits are high. This is an example of a time when you could choose to accept the 1 in 1000 risk of getting bit and the anxiety that comes with it to spend time with the people you love. Over time your anxiety will go down.
 
If something crazy happens and the dog bites you, you’ll either realize that it wasn’t that bad after all and your anxiety will go down, or you’ll re-evaluate your choices and hopefully make an intentional choice about whether to continue to interact with that dog or not.
 
If the neighbor has a crazy dangerous aggressive dog, you may make the conscious choice to avoid that dog and that neighbor because the level of risk doesn’t outweigh the benefits of interacting with that neighbor.
 
If a person you really care about has a dog that seems genuinely dangerous, then step back, weigh the risks and benefits and your values, and then make a decision based not on fear but on what is most important to you. Safety? Spending time with them? Or some kind of compromise — maybe you can spend time together without the dog.
 
What this really comes down to is looking at your anxiety, at your what-if thoughts, from an observer position. Noticing them and, from your vantage point, making a choice about what you’re going to choose to act upon and accept. Then you choose to do something meaningful, something that is in line with the life you want to live.

Living a life that you value is most likely going to include discomfort and anxiety.

Making YouTube videos is anxiety-provoking for me, but I do it because it makes a small, positive difference in the world. That’s an acceptable risk because it lines up with my personal values. And over time it has gotten easier for me and I don’t feel so anxious about it.

Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill felt tremendous anxiety at times about continuing their respective wars, especially upon seeing the loss of life and the pain and suffering of the people impacted. But they chose a path based on their values, their beliefs, and the recognition that avoiding that anxiety would actually make things worse.

I bet most people doing good do feel anxiety. And the worst may happen, but the choice you make of how much risk to accept should be based on your values, not on fear.

Your life is bigger and has more meaning and purpose than just avoiding fear. If you want to overcome anxiety and take control of your life, then you need to spend some time figuring out what you want your life to be about instead. What good do you want to bring to the world? Is it kindness? Love? Education? A kick-butt invention? A happy family?

Summary

When you take the time to step back and look at what you really value, then it makes it worthwhile to face your fears, accept the what-ifs, take courage, and move boldly forward.
 
Your brain is really good at imagining danger. But if you let anxiety and what-ifs make your choices, your world will shrink and you’ll feel more anxious and powerless. Instead, regain your power through careful risk assessment and choosing acceptable risk.
 
Sometimes what feels dangerous isn’t actually dangerous. There are no zero-risk options. Just focus on your values. Go towards something instead of away from something.
 
When you do this with an exposure hierarchy, then you’ll gradually gain more confidence and have less anxiety.

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