When I was in the throes of OCD, my predominant emotion was anxiety. It took a back seat to the challenges presented to me by my intrusive thoughts and compulsions associated with the particular manifestation of OCD that I struggled with, but it lingered in the background like the potential of being blind-sided on the game of Survivor, okay until it wasn’t.

As I underwent counseling, I learned to practice exposure and response prevention (ERP), actively & passively. A tenet of ERP is taking advantage of moments of distress to build up a tolerance for low-level distress or anxiety. The idea is to avoid the temptation to turn down stimulus in your life to avoid anxiety, but rather to turn towards it. No one wants to sit in a gray box devoid of stimulus. People want to participate in life, and as my OCD subsided and I was able to engage more with life, and my relationship with anxiety changed.

My premise is that functioning with anxiety is something that everyone can benefit from. The idea is that when you experience anxiety, to just do something, not to forget the anxiety, but in spite of the anxiety. Just start. Don’t avoid hard challenges or succumb to analysis paralysis. Why does analysis paralysis exist? It’s because we’re afraid of failing (i.e. anxious). The benefit of pressing forward in the face of anxiety is that with time your tolerance for anxiety increases. By leaning into your anxiety, you save your future self anxiety when all else is equal.

Of course the point isn’t to submit yourself to suffering. My protocol starts by tackling low level anxiety situations and building up from there. If you’re in the thick of OCD treatment you may be familiar with the fear thermometer (I’ve written about it elsewhere). The idea is that you start with areas that are low-level anxiety and build up, progressing into larger areas of anxiety with time. At the end of the day, the brain chemistry is the same. If you’re acclimating to low level anxiety that’s going to help you tackle those areas of bigger anxiety.

I was pretty crippled by my anxiety. I didn’t have time or presence of mind to for life to resonate. I didn’t have the ability to experience the full gambit of emotions in my life. Pushing through my anxiety opened the world up to me. This year now that I don’t struggle with anxiety on daily basis, I’m pushing myself through a one-word theme of ‘discovery.’ That’s a story for another time, but this year I’ve probably done more new things than I’ve done in years. And without my anxiety I’ve been able to listen, observe and experience life in a way that I’ll better remember.


TL;DR —

What? When anxiety happens, lean into it. Keep doing what you want to do.

Why? Initially pushing through anxiety was to open up the world to me. It makes me less sensitive to day-to-day anxiety.

How?

  • Just do something
  • Pull into the present moment
  • Eat the elephant one bite at a time
  • Discover something new
  • Think macro
  • Recognize when you’re entering the funnel of anxiety as an opportunity to do something about it!

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