Come Back, Be Kind, Step Forward
A lecture theatre of around 200 students were staring at me in awkward silence. They’d stopped mumbling to each other and were no longer taking sneaky glances at their phones hidden away from view. I was standing before them in the middle of a panic attack.
It had been a busy day and I’d taken a glance at my lecture notes earlier, feeling reasonably confident about the lecture I was going to deliver. I’d done it a few times before, and I thought I had a good handle on the new research that I’d added to this semester’s session.
It had started quite well, I was comfortable with the introduction, but then I stumbled upon my words when covering some research on an early slide. As I carried on, my mind was going over that stumble time and time again, pulling my attention away from the point I should now be making. Then I looked at the next bullet point and my mind went blank. The more I looked at it, the less sense it made; the words looked jumbled. I decided just to read it out verbatim and hope that the meaning would come to me by the time I finished. It didn’t.
The sound in lecture theatre had now become noticeably quieter. I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest; my voice sounding shaky, laboured and uneven. Now words were just coming out, but I had no idea what I was saying or if I was making sense. I knew I was having a panic attack and the chances of me logically thinking my way out of it were almost impossible. Now all I could think about was how ridiculous I must look as a wave of embarrassment washed over me. So I left the lecture theatre, mumbling that I would be back in five minutes.
I stood outside and wanted to get as far away from there as possible but I knew I had to go back in because:
I had to finish the lecture.
Running away would only make the anxiety worse in the future.
There’s a term in psychology called ‘experiential avoidance.’ It describes how we attempt to avoid uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and emotions; often by trying to run away from them, distracting ourselves from them, or blocking them out. The problem is that when we consistently avoid difficult or unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and emotions we can bring greater harm in the long-term.
When we avoid tasks, activities, or situations that cause us anxiety, our world starts to shrink, our opportunities decline, and the issues that cause our anxiety loom ever larger over us.
So experiential avoidance is not just about panic attacks. If you find yourself watching TV or surfing the web instead of doing that job or task that makes you feel anxious, then you’re practising experiential avoidance. While it may take away your anxiety in the short-term, it’s making life more difficult in the long-term.
Medicating by drinking alcohol or taking drugs can also be a form of experiential avoidance, as we attempt to block out uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions, rather than confronting issues and taking positive but challenging action.
Experiential avoidance is easier than ever now as we’re never far away from an accessible and multifaceted distraction in the shape of a smartphone. We can look at social media, check out the news, play a game — the options are plentiful and engage us easily.
So what should we do when our anxiety is rising and we start to look for ways of distracting from, or blocking out, uncomfortable thoughts or feelings?
Come Back, Be Kind, Step Forward
A mindfulness-based psychological therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us that we should:
Come back — bring our attention back to whatever it was that was making us feel uncomfortable and causing anxiety, and commit to engaging with it.
Be kind — don’t berate or criticise ourselves for feeling anxious or uncomfortable. The human mind has the tendency to judge itself harshly. We should treat ourselves with kindness and compassion, as we would a good friend.
Step forward — now engage with the task that was making us feel uncomfortable. Accept the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, don’t battle with them or get into a conversation with them, allow them to be there but focus on the task at hand. Our minds will wander back to the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings but whenever it does we should just accept that they’re still there and then gently bring our attention back to the task.
If we can see anxiety-inducing situations as an opportunities to improve, grow, and become better at challenges, we are less likely to distract ourselves from them or block them out. The more we practise, the easier it will become.
So I stepped back into the lecture theatre, treated myself with kindness and focussed on engaging with the lecture again. I made a few more mistakes, felt my anxiety rise every so often, but despite this I stayed with it and kept my attention on the task as best as I could. My experiences in lectures improved over time because of the decision I made that day. I made sure I was prepared, kept coming back, being kind to myself, and stepping forward despite feeling anxious.
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