As we go about our daily lives, we constantly shift our behaviors according to our surroundings. The way we choose to behave is motivated by the desire to put us in the most comfortable mental space possible.
When feelings of anxiety surface, instinctual coping kicks in. As addressed in last month’s blog, anxiety is a learned association through classical conditioning. Once a person has categorized something as unpleasant, they will continue to relate those unpleasant feelings to anything associated with that event. In order to not feel anxious, our instincts tell us to avoid. However, instead of getting rid of those unpleasant feelings forever, this type of coping maintains anxiety through the principles of operant conditioning.
How does operant conditioning maintain anxiety?
Operant conditioning refers to associating behaviors to a specific consequence. The consequence that follows determines if we will behave the same or change our behavior in the hopes of a more desirable outcome.
Let’s think back to grade school history class. No matter how long ago, the presentation you stumbled over or completely forgot is probably ingrained into your mind. At the time, the chuckles exchanged by classmates were amplified and the feelings of incompetence and failure were rampant. Now, those same feelings of incompetence and failure arise when it’s time to share your update during a work meeting.
How do consequences shape behavior?
Behaviorist Dr. Orval Hobart Mowrer created a two-factor theory explaining phobias and fears in 1939. According to Dr. Mowrer, fears are learned by association (classical conditioning) and once learned, the individual will avoid all things associated with that initial connection (operant conditioning).
If a certain behavior or event is followed by unpleasant feelings, our instincts will guide us to avoid this in the future. For those scarred from grade school presentations, avoiding all scenarios from giving updates at work to speaking at your best friend’s wedding will alleviate those punishing feelings. The behaviors that come with reward or relief such as, turning your camera off on Zoom or calling in sick, are the ones that will be repeated. This is how we have learned to cope with anxiety.
The problem is, avoidance as a coping mechanism only alleviates those feelings temporarily.
As time goes on, avoiding a scenario continues to increase the associated fear without actual evidence supporting it. Just because we froze during 7th grade history class does not determine our current abilities. Continued avoidance does not allow us to create opportunities to have different experiences that could disprove our original association.
Breaking the association is the first step to reducing anxiety. Here are some ways to do that:
- Be an observer of your own feelings. Start asking yourself, is this fear evoked by a harmful or harmless scenario?
- If harmless, label it as a neutral stimulus in your mind. Begin to plan on exposing yourself to the neutral stimuli, recognizing that the fear is not due to an actual threat.
- Repeatedly engage in that activity (e.g., saying “hi” to the mail person every day, driving across a bridge) until you start to feel less anxious doing it.
- Track your fear level during each exposure and plan ahead to increase the feeling of control you have of the situation.
- Reward yourself after each time you face your fears. Buying yourself a special treat or taking yourself out for a fun activity after completing a goal can help sustain the motivation needed to keep confronting your fears.
- For social anxiety, using strategic experiments can help create a new self-image that is aware of your current experiences and give you the opportunity to practice breaking your avoidance behaviors. The National Social Anxiety Center provides an insightful way of designing your own experiment.
The journey to reducing anxiety associations is challenging with twists and turns along the way. It’s normal to feel our fears creep back in due to stress or life transitions. Coping with anxiety is a lifelong process and utilizing these tools will set us up for success in creating healthy habits.
About the Author: Rudairo Segbeaya is a Behavior Therapist and Pacific CBT’s Office Manager. She is currently interested in understanding the relationship between race and mental health specifically within the African American community as well as finding possible solutions to healing intergenerational trauma. Rudairo received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of San Francisco and is currently undertaking a Master’s degree in Special Education with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University.