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How We Tend to Cope with Anxiety Falls on a Spectrum

Spectrum of coping with anxiety.

Everyone has a different “default” way of coping with anxiety – and many of us will experience a shift from one extreme of the spectrum to the other at least once during our lifetime. While our culture praises the “brave” approach and shames the avoidant, both approaches are equally harmful ways of avoiding the discomfort of being present to the tension of the middle ground. In this middle space, we inhabit our bodies, we have self-compassion for ourselves, and let ourselves experience the emotions inherent in doing things that are really, really hard.

After watching someone I love shrink into a world that grew smaller and smaller through efforts to avoid anxiety triggers, I was convinced for a time that the only way to deal with my own anxiety was to cut off my capacity to hear anxiety’s voice and force myself into the heart of the things I feared most. What I learned, after experience the pain of the “approach orientation” to dealing with anxiety, is that both extremes are ways of coping with anxiety that can have painful consequences. Healthy coping with anxiety means finding the right balance between exposure, support, and self-compassion – and that’s really hard to do all alone. If you are working through anxiety, tell someone, and ask for help (or for help with getting professional help).

Image description for screen readers:

Title reads, “Spectrum of anxiety coping.”

Underneath, a spectrum is drawn. There is red on the extreme ends of the spectrum with labels that say, “Danger!” 

The red spectrum end on the left has text underneath that says, “Avoidance Oriented: No, no no, never face the scary thing. Hide! Distract!”

The other red spectrum, on the right, has text underneath that says, “Approach oriented: Ignore internal cues! Push it! Break through at any cost!”

Next to the red ends of the spectrum are orange and yellow blocks, with a green block in the middle labeled, “Growth Zone,” where the dial is.

Above the green middle is text that reads, “Face the thing sometimes, bring a friend, take breaks, set growth-oriented goals.”

Parenting Children with Anxiety
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