The last skill looked at challenging your thoughts to manage your anxiety, whereas this skill will teach you how to change your behaviour to achieve the same goal. As we have discussed in earlier weeks, our reactions to anxiety can often keep the anxiety going. For example, many people have the urge to escape or avoid feared social situations. When we act on that urge, it adds fuel to the anxiety fire. Although we get some short term relief, we often feel even more anxious the next time we are faced with a similar situation. To avoid this, you can use opposite action.
The opposite action skill involves doing the opposite to what your anxiety is telling you to do. As we explored in Week 1, there are many unhelpful ways in which people react to their anxiety. These include things like avoidance, escape, substance use and a range of other safety behaviours. Anxiety generally tells us to avoid danger and flee the situation. The opposite action for anxiety is therefore to open up and approach situations. Using this skill will help you to regulate and change your anxiety. However, it should only be used in cases where there is no real threat to your health and safety. If following your anxiety is going to be unhelpful or harmful in some way, opposite action is the right skill to use.
How to use opposite action
Step 1. Notice and name your anxiety when it shows up. Use mindfulness skills to help with this. Remember, denying your feelings almost always makes things worse.
Step 2. Decide whether acting on your anxiety will be helpful. Use the Wise Mind and “Check the Facts’ skills to help you do this. As a general rule, if acting on your anxiety has the potential to make things worse or take you further from your goals, it is likely to be unhelpful. However, when anxiety motivates you to make positive changes, acting on it might be helpful and you do not need to take the opposite action.
Step 3. Notice and name the urges that come with your anxiety. This involves identifying any impulses, desires, or compulsions to act in a particular way . Ask yourself what your mind is telling you to do and how you feel like responding. This is an important step – you need to know what your anxious urges are before you can take an opposite action.
Step 4. Consider your options for opposite action and choose one. Consider what your anxious urges are telling you to do and think about different ways of acting. If you’re already responding to your anxiety somehow, think about how you can do the opposite (e.g., relaxing your muscles, slowing your breathing). Try to be as specific as you can.
Step 5. Take the opposite action and do it with intention. Half-hearted attempts are unlikely to work. Notice whether your anxiety changes as you carry out the opposite action. You must continue the opposite action long enough to signal to your brain that intense anxiety is no longer needed.
You might not feel different immediately, this will require repeated effort. With time, however, your anxiety should start to lessen. If not, you might need to review your approach and try a different opposite action. No matter what feeling shows up, remember not to judge it.
Although people’s plans for opposite action will differ depending on their circumstances, there are some common opposite actions that will work well for anxiety in most situations.
Instead of acting on your anxiety by retreating, you could:
- Confront your fears, over and over again
- Repeatedly expose yourself to whatever makes you anxious
- If you feel anxious, remain in the situation
- Do things that make you feel in successful and in control
- Change your body language to appear more confident (e.g., stand tall, make eye contact, speak up so people can hear you)
- Change your body’s physical state by taking slow, deep breaths
An example of opposite action in use
Dana has a spare movie ticket, but thinks that no one will want to go with her. She wants to ask a friend to come along, but her fear of rejection is holding her back. Dana feels anxious and her urge is to avoid asking anyone. Instead, Dana decides to use opposite action. Before approaching a friend, Dana relaxes her shoulders and does some deep breathing. She then asks the friend. As Dana acted confidently, she started to feel a bit more confident.
The first friend Dana asked said she couldn’t make it to the movie because she was busy. This raised Dana’s anxiety a bit, but she tried again. The second friend she asked agreed to see the movie with her. They had a great time. It turns out that the first friend had really wanted to come along too, but she had to work.
The next time Dana wanted to invite a friend to do something, she still felt nervous. But after taking the opposite action several times, Dana’s anxiety around this decreased significantly. She now feels a lot more confident inviting friends to do things and suggesting group activities.
Breaking it down
Taking the opposite action sounds great in theory, but what if it simply seems too overwhelming to do in one step? Don’t worry, you are not alone. Many people who suffer from shyness and social anxiety feel this way. This is where overcoming your fears by breaking them down into smaller steps can help. This technique is sometimes called graded exposure. It involves starting with situations that are more manageable for you, and gradually working your way up to more anxiety provoking tasks.
The first step is to identify all the situations that you currently avoid. For each situation, rate the level of anxiety associated with it (from 0-100). For example, speaking in front of people (90), talking to strangers (85), going to the mall (60), and so on. Next, you must identify some goals to work on. Think about how your anxiety holds you back and what you would like to be doing differently. Focus on one goal at a time. For example, “I want to be able to speak at a conference of 30+ people”. For each goal, you will need to build an ‘exposure stepladder’.
To build your exposure stepladder, you will need to break your chosen goal into smaller steps. Rate your level of anxiety for each step and then order the steps from least to most anxiety provoking. The idea is that the different steps on the ladder give you a clear process for confronting your fears in a gradual and safe way. You can repeat each step as many times as needed before moving on to more challenging steps. This allows you to build your confidence slowly and gives you a better chance of success in the long run.
Let’s take an example of an exposure stepladder (anxiety ratings are in brackets):
Goal: To be able to speak for 20 minutes at a conference of 30+ people (90)
- Prepare my speech (10)
- Practice speech in front of the mirror (20)
- Perform speech to my cat (25)
- Perform speech to my spouse (30)
- Perform speech to a group of 5 close friends (40)
- Give written speech to a senior colleague to critique (55)
- Revise speech and perform it to one close colleague (60)
- Perform speech to a group of 5 colleagues (70)
- Perform speech to my entire office team (15 people) (80)
- Speak at my work conference for 20 minutes in front of 30+ people (90)
As you can see, the step ladder approach allows you to practice taking the opposite action under increasingly challenging circumstances, until you reach your goal.