After the Christmas holidays I returned to work at my university, taking the train as usual, then walking a short way through Sydney’s Inner West to my office. I used to walk with the majority of students and staff, only I like to walk briskly, and most people take it easy. I felt like a Formula One driver trying to work his way up from last place on the grid; so eventually I chose a different route, cutting through the engineering faculty to avoid the crowds. However, on this first day back I mysteriously reverted to my original route, and only realised what had happened as I was half way along. I chuckled a little, recognising that I had fallen victim to a significant phenomenon relevant to my clinical work, especially related to anxiety.
When we overcome anxiety, we usually learn that what we feared is unlikely to eventuate, or even if it does, it will not be as bad as we thought. An effective way to achieve this insight is to face our fears often enough that our emotional system learns the reality that perhaps our intellect knew all along. For example, the person that fears flying, despite knowing intellectually how safe this mode of transport is, will, by taking enough flights, learn emotionally that there is little to fear about flying. (This method of treating anxiety is called exposure.)
Except some people, after learning not to fear flying, will turn up to the airport one day and be overcome by fear again. Why? Well, we know from extensive research that old learning is not erased: it turns out that what is learned cannot be unlearned, so that our fear of flying, for example, never goes away. But we are able to learn something new that competes with our fear – in this case, that flying is a very safe way to travel. These two nuggets of knowledge compete for influence over our emotions and subsequent actions (whether to fly or not to fly). And a significant factor that can weaken new learning about our anxieties is a change in context compared to when we first learned these facts. This context can be the place, the people involved, or even the time – anything about the circumstances in which we learned to no longer fear something.
So we learn to not fear flying, but after a few months we might then think… “that was then, but this is now: perhaps its no longer safe to fly”. Or, “I felt safe on xyz airline, but this is abc airline – maybe it’s not safe with them”. Or, “I was okay when I flew with my friend, but now I’m alone, so perhaps its not safe after all”. None of these thoughts need be conscious, but there is nevertheless some doubt about feeling safe, so anxiety returns.
This is similar to what happened to me that first day back at work. After a couple of weeks off my brain decided to revert to an old habit-old learning if you will-which caused me to walk an old and less convenient route. When our anxiety returns we are simply walking an old route, but the good news is that the new route is still fresh in our mind, and research has shown that we can return to this route with less effort than it originally took to forge it.
A clever analogy taught to me by a former colleague (Jess), is to think of your existing fear as a wide track through a thick forest. Overcoming this fear requires you to laboriously push your way through virgin forest, making a new track, one that leads to a feeling of safety. At first this is very hard work, but over time you push back the plants and firm the ground, making it easier and easier to travel this route. And all the while the old route, which led to fear and anxiety, is becoming overgrown from lack of use. But it will never quite disappear, so it may be that some days, depending on the circumstances, you might accidentally travel back down your old trail, ending up in a fearful place. This is perhaps inevitable, but just as certain is that our new track is still available; and we can, after realising what has happened, decide again to choose the route which leads to that sense of confidence we get from facing our fears.
So, if you find yourself beset by fear once again, remember that this is just a wrong turn. Retrace your steps, and pick up where you left off. You’ll find your sense of confidence will return more easily the second (or third, or fourth…) time around.