Face what makes you anxious

I walk everywhere. I know this is stupid, but I'm having the hardest time passing by people...It's so embarrassing...

I walk everywhere. I know this is stupid, but I’m having the hardest time passing by people. It’s bad when the other person and I are going in opposite directions. I hate getting closer and closer until we finally get by each other. I’ve been known to turn a corner and go a longer route rather than meet someone that way. What’s worse is when I’m going in the same direction and walk faster than the other person. I end up walking behind them, rather than passing. This is especially bad when there is somewhere I need to be. I’ve missed appointments and been late for dates with friends because I just couldn’t do it. It’s so embarrassing that here I am writing to a newspaper, rather than talking to someone about it. Help!

Not much fun! It sounds like you are really struggling with some pretty intense anxious feelings. Most people have some things that make them feel more anxious. For example, public speaking is something that more people are anxious about than anything else. No big deal for most people. It is a big deal though, if you need to do public speaking for some reason, or are making major life decisions, such as not doing work that you would love to do, because of it.

Your level of anxiousness about passing people is a big deal. You are a walker, and it is pushing you around and getting you to make some decisions that are not in your best interest: taking a longer route, slowing down so that you are late for important things in your life, not talking about it. All these things keep anxiety happy, because you are doing what it wants you do (or not do), rather than what you want.

It is important to note that even though anxiety is pretty intense in those situations, you continue to walk. Well done. Even though you feel too embarrassed to talk to someone about this, you’ve written to the newspaper for some help. Well done.

So let’s look at some things to do to continue your work with this situation.

Give your mind something to focus on — anything, rather than the thought of not wanting to pass the person. For example, predict how many steps you will walk, (or breaths you will take, or songs you will sing) before you will pass the person. Put your focus on that. Congratulate yourself if you are right. Keep counting to see how many it actually took, if your prediction is off. Try to develop the skill of getting really good at these predictions, as you do pass people.

Your mind will likely go off in different directions to start with. So when you notice that, start your count over. Or, keep going from where you last remember the count being. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter, is that you are retraining your mind to focus on what you want to think about, rather than what anxiety wants you to think about.

Have a plan of what to do when you actually do pass the person. You can be as creative as you wish. Maybe plan to look past the person at some spot, and keep your eyes there. Or put your hands in your pockets and look down at the ground as you go by them. Or maybe you look at the person right in the eye and say, “hello” when you pass them. Have your plan ready, well before you encounter someone. Try different things out to see what is the most helpful to you.

Anticipate that you will need to practice to get good at this. And that it is hard. If it was easy, you would have done it ages ago. But just because it is hard doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to do it. It may mean that you initially do it with your hands sweaty, heart pounding, maybe even feeling a little dizzy. Those sensations are a physical response to the stress of the situation for you. Anticipate those feelings, and that it will get easier, the more that you do it.

Congratulate yourself for any small gain you make in each situation.

If you are finding that this does not help, consider taking some other steps. A class, such as the Stress Reduction Program: training in mindfulness meditation, may be up your alley. Biofeedback may help (check online for biofeedback information, programs, and local distributors). If/when you do feel comfortable speaking with someone, consult a Registered Clinical Counsellor, or government mental health services.

To ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail  info@pacifictherapy.ca. Consult a Counsellor is provided by registered clinical counsellors Nancy Bock, Diane Davies Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead, Sara-Lynn Kang and Carolyn Howard at pacific therapy & consulting inc. It appears every second Thursday in the Record.

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