Ways To Manage When You Have To Face A Scary Situation And Can't Use Gradual Exposure To Get Used To It First
A good way to get used to situations that make you nervous is to face them at a steady, manageable pace using Exposure Therapy. For example, if you have a fear of elevators you can practice riding them. You'd start with an easier goal, like going up one floor in a small building, then build up to scarier stuff like heading to the top of a skyscraper.
However, life isn't always so accommodating. It's one thing to be able to avoid elevators if you want to, then slowly try to get used to them on your own time. What if you're about to be thrust into a situation you know is going to spike your anxiety, and you won't be able to gradually lower your fears around it? What if you have to start a stressful new job in a week, and being unemployed any longer isn't an option? What if you have social anxiety, and have to meet your boyfriend's whole family at a big party next weekend, and you know you can't skip it?
Here are some things you can still do:
Don't feel gradual exposure is the only way you can ever get used to a fear
Slowly facing your fears in an organized, systematic way is an easier, effective method to reduce them, but that doesn't mean it's your only option. Sometimes when life forces us to confront the things that scare us we still eventually get used to them. It's a more haphazard, up and down, emotionally draining process, but it can still work in the end. Plenty of people can tell you about having to start jobs where they dreaded the idea of having to speak to customers, make sales calls, or do presentations, but they got comfortable with those tasks. Bailing out wasn't an option, so they got some forced, less-predictable exposure that still had an effect. It wasn't official, deliberate Exposure Therapy exposure, but it was still a hands-on experience that helped their mind get the message of, "This thing you're afraid of actually isn't that bad in real life."
Of course, being tossed in the deep end doesn't always pan out. I'll talk about that more further down.
Use other other anxiety management strategies to cope with your nerves, until hopefully you do get used to the situation
While you'll ideally get accustomed to your new circumstances in time, that doesn't mean you can't use other tools to take the edge off during the wait. There are lots of options here. Keep trying new ones if the first few you test out don't click for you:
- Relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, grounding exercises, or calming visualizations
- Learning to gently sit with your anxious discomfort, tolerate it, and act in spite of it when you need to
- Going to people for support, like friends, family, or a therapist
- Implementing mood boosting, stress reducing habits and lifestyle changes, like exercising regularly or cutting down on how much caffeine you drink
- Temporarily removing other sources of stress or hassle if you can, like taking a break from an evening class which has an annoying drive to get to
- Strategically using medication or supplements to help you through the transition - I know meds aren't always the answer for everyone, and it's your choice to use them or not, but there are times when they can help
Accept your nerves may get pretty intense at first, but aim to hang in there
If you're put in a stressful situation that you haven't had enough time to prepare for, it will naturally make your anxiety shoot up. You may get extra-unpleasant symptoms such as:
- Not sleeping well
- Having a poor appetite
- Feeling tense and shaky
- Feeling flushed, dizzy, pukey, or like your heart is beating too fast
- Sudden rushes of fear and feelings of overwhelm
- Worries about everything going wrong
- Thoughts like, "I can't do this! I can't do this!"
- Feeling like you're too nervous to concentrate or string a sentence together
If you're starting at a new school or job you may feel really out of sorts for the first couple of weeks. If you're going to a one-off shorter term event, like a party, you may feel like garbage during the lead up to it, and when you first arrive. Either way, it sucks to feel this physically amped up and jittery, and it can make you feel like you can't cope or want to bail out of the whole thing.
However, if you can get through the initial adjustment period, whether that's a week or two at a new job, or just the first half-hour of that nerve racking party, you'll usually start to feel better. If you know going in it will be rough at first, that can increase your resolve to ride it out. It's no fun to show up at work and have to hold it together after not getting much sleep the night before, but that phase won't last forever. As cliche as it sounds, take it all an hour at a time. Use whatever strategies you can to make it though. Don't worry about whether you're operating at 100%. Just try to survive the day. You have more ability to gut it out than you think you do.
As much as you can, take steps to resolve the core issues that are generating your anxiety in the first place
I know this isn't a five-day project. If your scary new job starts next week you can't magically sort out all the unconscious childhood emotional scars that give you a fear of presenting at meetings. But it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. Do what you can:
- Try to learn any missing skills or experience that impact your anxiety levels, e.g., public speaking techniques, not being familiar with the software you'll need to use at work. Even reading a few concepts may shave 10% off your nerves, which is better than nothing.
- Explore and try to resolve some of the old baggage related to your fears. I know, that's a really broad suggestion. But again, maybe you in a week or two you can deal with one small facet of your worries, which takes some of the pressure off. Every little bit counts.
Again, I know these aren't overnight tasks. They may even create more anxiety in the short term, like if you start exploring traumas from your adolescence you've kept a lid on until now. But they are an alternative to being able to gradually get used to a new situation.
Accept that some circumstances are just more than you can handle at the moment, and you'll need to strategically back off
Like I said, ideally that if you have no choice but to face a fear, you'll still be able to get used to it, even if the process is painful and messy. Unfortunately it doesn't always go that way. You may not like it, and it may have difficult consequences, but sometimes life puts us up against more than we can deal with. If you really struggle with anxiety, starting a hectic new job may tip you over the edge. Even if you give it an honest shot and don't let your nerves trick you into quitting early. Even if you really need the money. Even if you're really ready to improve your mental health and move onto a new stage in your life. Things aren't always fair.
It's frustrating and discouraging when this happens, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Try to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Just because you had to face one unplanned burst of overly intense stress doesn't mean you're done for life. Give yourself space to feel crappy about what happened. When you're up to it, think about what you still learned from the experience, and consider how you can approach things differently next time. For example, is there a different type of job you could try?