When last we met I introduced you to Dr. Michel Dugas. One of Dr. Dugas’ claims to fame involves a clever metaphor: anxiety (specifically GAD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder) as an allergy to uncertainty.
To Sneeze or Not To Sneeze
Think about an allergy to dust or pollen. If anyone on earth gets a pile of dust or pollen blown up their nose (I don’t know why this would happen, but work with me here), they will sneeze. That does not mean this person has an allergy. Dust and pollen are a bit irritating for everyone. On the other hand, people with an actual allergy don’t need to have dust or pollen blown up their nose to start sneezing. In fact, they can hide indoors and still end up sneezing like a champion.
In the same way, everybody finds uncertainty a bit irritating. However, there are folks for whom uncertainty triggers explosive sneezing, so to speak. Thankfully, the comparison Dr. Dugas is making is only metaphorical. The “allergy” to uncertainty does not include actual sneezing, or worse, severe allergic reactions like swelling up and becoming unable to breathe.
Nevertheless, someone with an intense allergy to uncertainty will fear and avoid it as if it were a peanut or seafood allergy, capable of causing death.
Please notice the language I used. The person “will fear and avoid it.”
The Enemy Among Us
There it is. That’s the problem. Not uncertainty. Not even fear, really. Avoidance is the enemy. (As it is with any kind of serious anxiety.) It’s also a very crafty and seductive enemy. Avoidance does not look all nasty or evil. No fangs or scowling. Quite the contrary. It typically seems friendly and helpful and soothing. Kind of like a warm and kindly grandmother.
“That mean old uncertainty is terrible!” says Avoidance. “Let’s go over here and get away from it. Here, have a cookie. Chocolate chip, your favourite! There now, don’t you feel better?”
It’s pretty easy to see where this will go for people. On one hand, there’s dizzying feelings of fear and dread, enough to make a person feel shaky and nauseous. On the other hand… cookies and a hug.
You might be thinking, “Where’s the problem?” Fair enough. Our natural response to fear is, “Run away!” So this is just following our instincts.
When this is in response to a hungry lion, that’s a good thing. When it’s in response to uncertainty — which is in no way lethal, or even likely to cause sneezing — this is at best unnecessary. The problem with avoidance is it removes the opportunity to develop tolerance for anxiety.
I know. “Removing the opportunity to develop tolerance for anxiety” does not exactly sound like end-of-the-world material. Think about it this way: if we never had the opportunity to develop tolerance for anxiety as little children, we would all still be clinging anxiously to our mothers and fathers. Without tolerance for anxiety, none of us could function and live independently.
Here’s a different way of looking at it. (This metaphor will never make me as famous as Dr. Dugas, but I think it works. At least for Canadians.) The avoidance of uncertainty is like leaving sweaty hockey equipment in a tightly sealed duffle bag, shut away in a locker.
Sure, nobody can smell it while it stays hidden away. But I pity the fool who has to pull out that bag and open it!
The anxiety does not go away. Like the hockey equipment (or the smell, I suppose) it is maintained — even made worse — by avoidance. More and more of life begins to revolve around avoidance. That hockey bag has got to stay locked away! Decisions end up being made with that as the priority.
An allergy to uncertainty is worse, because uncertainty is kind of everywhere in life. One hockey bag in a locker is not going to influence a lot of decisions. If there were hundreds of hockey bags to consider, a person’s relationships, health and recreation can all end up taking a back seat to the all-consuming need to avoid.
To be blunt, the person can become a slave to avoidance.
The Many Faces of Avoidance
Think I’m being dramatic? Well… I suppose I am. I find it entertaining.
Consider some of the following behaviours, however. These are a few common — and not at all dramatic — forms of avoidance:
- i.e. Delaying and delaying a decision… because you’re just not sure what the “right” choice is.
- i.e. Fussing over which is the “best” choice (a restaurant, a movie, a new shirt) so much that you end up doing nothing.
b) Only partially committing yourself to a relationship; a job; a house; a hobby; a social group…
c) Gathering a lot of information before finally moving forward with a choice.
- i.e. excessive internet research on a product you wish to buy
- i.e. asking for the same opinion and information from multiple people
d) Seeking reassurance from other people over and over; or trying to reassure yourself with exaggerated enthusiasm.
e) Identifying multiple reasons to avoid doing something.
- i.e. Avoiding exercise because you might not have enough time in your schedule. Or you don’t have the right equipment. Then maybe you’re not sure you could put up with the discomfort of such a hot day… cold day… rainy day… sunny day…
See anything familiar?
The key is to be honest with yourself. I know that can be very difficult sometimes. If you have an allergy to uncertainty, it may be exceptionally difficult.
So What’s the Antidote?
The antidote is simple; but not easy. It is exposure. Exposure is simply the opposite of avoidance. Rather than avoiding the uncertainty; you move toward it and let yourself feel the anxiety.
Yay! What fun!
Not really. It’s actually guaranteed to be unpleasant. It helps to remember that an allergy to uncertainty is metaphorical. Facing the anxiety triggered by uncertainty is never fatal. As far as I know, it doesn’t even make you break out in hives.
That’s not to say it’s no big deal. For those with an allergy to uncertainty, it is a very big deal indeed. All I’m saying is that while it might seem impossible to face; it can be done, and it can be done safely. It will not harm you.
So try an experiment. Pick one of the avoidance behaviours (probably one of the smaller ones), for which an opportunity has arisen or soon will. Don’t do it. Notice what happens.
I can guarantee it will not be easy or pleasant. I can also guarantee that you’ll survive and — in the words of Darth Vader — “there will be no permanent damage.”
Once you experience the “I did it!” once, it will be a little bit easier to do it twice, then three times, etc. It won’t completely change overnight. You’ll have to keep working at it. But gradually, it will get easier and you’ll feel pretty good about your ability to do things you used to avoid, as the saying goes, like the plague.
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