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Triggers: Avoid or Embrace?

Many people suffering from anxiety disorders are familiar with their triggers - stimuli like sounds, smells, sights, or circumstances that set off a physiological or emotional stress response. A certain perfume takes you right back to a painful relationship loss. Being in an enclosed or crowded space like an elevator or a movie theater makes you feel trapped and panicked. A type of food that reminds you of the time you got very ill and felt scared and helpless. Sometimes my clients ask me "should I be avoiding my triggers or exposing myself to them?" My answer is (as it often is): it depends.

If you are having difficulty staying regulated enough to function normally in everyday life and you are experiencing acute anxiety or emotional distress, then avoiding triggers as much as possible for the time being makes sense. Get the help you need, learn to identify the sources of your anxiety, and get some anxiety management tools under your belt. Knowing your triggers and circumventing them when possible can be a way to keep your anxiety under control for a period of time.

However, I find that avoidance is not a cure. People get very skilled at avoidance and start to feel safe in that, but after a time those safe areas will start to feel restrictive. You may find that avoidance leads you to live a less full life than you would want. You may also find that the more you rely on avoidance as your main strategy for stress management, the smaller and smaller your life becomes as you try to avoid all manner of things that may cause you anxiety. At a certain point in time, the journey of recovery switches from "how do I survive" to "how can I now thrive?" Learning to face your triggers, understand them, and tolerate your stress in response to them is part of the path toward becoming more resilient in the face of life's uncertainties. The funny thing about anxiety is that the more willing you are to face the anxiety, the less intense the anxiety becomes. Gentle exposure while knowing you are safe can be extremely empowering in your battle with anxiety.

Here's to a more resilient and empowered 2024!


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