Right now I’m in a noisy and raucous bar, which is not my favorite place to be.
I prefer quiet and solitude, but that isn’t always what I can get; so I occasionally brave a loud environment to prime my defenses against anxiety.
Since I still battle with nerves that arise from what I call “unstructured social situations;” I put myself in uncomfortable environments where I also enjoy a high degree of control. That way, when I am obligated to attend a work function, dinner party, or other event with way too many people, sounds, and colors, I have a set of experiences where I felt safe that I can draw on if needed.
Typically, I choose a sports bar. There is enough noise from the TV broadcast, especially if a game is on, and during happy hour there are plenty of people. It is a lot of stimulus, and that is the point.
I always bring a book, or my trusty Kindle.
I sit at the bar, as far away from other people as possible. I order my food and read my book.
Books are one source of deep pleasure for me, and reading in an uncomfortable environment makes the environment more comfortable to me with more repetition.
Really, this is a stripped-down version of exposure therapy. By regularly putting myself in environments that increase my anxiety, I am able to build a repository of memories of being okay in boisterous and loud places with lots of people.
I am stressed by loud noises and large groupings of people I do not know. That is how I am wired, and I have learned to respect my wiring. That does not mean that I am beholden to my wiring. Knowing the trigger, means I can adjust the context that might result in higher levels of anxiety.
This is best understood visually. Consider the image below.
In these types of experiments, the trigger is the bell. When the rat is placed in a room with a blue floor, it is shocked whenever a bell sounds.
When inhabiting a purple-floored room, and the same bell sounds, the rat does not get shocked. Repeat this process enough times, and the rat shows signs of fear when the bell sounds in the room with a blue floor, and signs of nonchalance in the room with a purple floor.
What I find fascinating is that, given enough time, you can destress the rat in the blue-floored room by repeatedly ringing a bell without the electric shock. Eventually, the rat won’t care what color the floor is - it will no longer associate the bell with pain, and will not exhibit signs of fear in the future.
What are you afraid of? Why?
Examine your biggest fear in detail, and you will be able to find some way to experience a little bit of your fear.
When you experience a little bit of fear with a significant amount of control, you are in the driver’s seat. Nothing is going to hurt you. The fear lessens. Then you can add a little more of what frightens you to the equation. Over time, you condition yourself to fear less and less.
I may always have a fear of “unstructured social situations,” but by using the tool of exposure therapy, I freed myself from the chains of fear that once bound me.