Luana Marques, PhD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power. Her advice on transforming anxiety is excerpted here.
Imagine that you just got an email late at night from someone who you have had a lot of conflict with, such as your boss, your loved one, your parent, a close friend, or your child. As you look at the email subject line, it reads, “We need to talk, it is urgent.” Immediately, your anxiety increases, and you might respond in one of three possible ways. Some of us are more likely to react (i.e., fight) when we sense discomfort. When you react to avoid, you will do whatever it takes to eliminate the potential threat, which really is your anxiety. So, what does it take to bring anxiety down through reactive avoidance? You might quickly compose and send a hasty email back without thinking much about it. When you press send, you feel better (at least I do!), but often feel awful the next morning because very likely you said things that either you didn’t mean or you did mean but you said them in a rude or inappropriate way.
Alternatively, you might be stuck in retreating (i.e., flight) as a form of avoidance. When you retreat to avoid, you move away from the potential threat. In this case, you might not even open the email; you put your phone down and turn on the TV for distraction. You feel better as you zone out in front of the TV, but unfortunately conflict does not have legs, so it is just there the next morning, which likely leads to even more anxiety.
Finally, some of us remain (i.e., freeze) in the face of a potential threat. If you remain, you end up stuck in place with the potential threat. You find yourself stuck, not sure what to do, perhaps just staring at the phone, without action. The freeze response is slightly different biologically than fight or flight, but as a form of avoidance, it does help momentarily.
Regardless of your flavor of avoidance, all three responses (i.e., react, retreat, and remain) function as forms of psychological avoidance because they are responses to a perceived threat that make you feel better momentarily but are associated with a negative long-term consequence.
It is important to remember that these flavors of avoidance are not set in stone and that how you respond to a perceived threat might vary depending on context. For example, I tend to engage in reactive avoidance at work but retreat to avoid in times of interpersonal conflict. Lucia, a stay-at-home mom, often retreats when angry with her husband, but reacts when it comes to her children. It does not matter how you avoid; what matters is that it is keeping you stuck.
But avoidance does not have to always win. Here is another path, a bold path, where you can learn to transform your anxiety into power. To do that, you will have to first pause through the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors cycle (shown below) and create the space so that you can learn not to avoid. At first, it is helpful to write out your TEB cycle to force this pause, but with practice it actually will come automatically to you.
Observing Your TEB Cycle
Focus on (and jot down) a situation that created discomfort. Then, write out your specific thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, ensuring that you are linking thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
Once you have completed the process, try to observe what you felt doing it. Did writing it out slow down your brain? Did you feel as if you could focus? What happened to your emotions?
You can repeat this exercise as often as you like.
Adapted from Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power by Dr. Luana Marques and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023.