Dawn Huebner on Rethinking Anxiety: Learning to Face Fear (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of author Dawn Huebner’s TEDx Talk on Rethinking Anxiety: Learning to Face Fear at TEDxAmoskeagMillyardWomen conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

 

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Dawn Huebner – Author

A little anxiety is a good thing. I kept telling myself that in the lead-up to today, but a little anxiety is good. It sharpens our senses and gets us ready to take on challenges.

A lot of anxiety is another story. It’s a hindrance rather than a help. A lot of anxiety makes it difficult to take productive action. It sets off a primitive response deep in our brains, the old fight-or-flight response which actually has a third part: freeze.

All three are protective mechanisms with important evolutionary advantages when we’re faced with danger. But anxiety is about perceived danger, very different from actual danger. And in the case of anxiety, fighting, fleeing, and freezing are all problematic causing us pain, preventing us from moving forward, making our world small.

I became a psychologist in 1987 and had my first and only child several years later. Before you too get too concerned for him, “Poor kid! A psychologist mom who gets up and talks about him on a TED stage” please know he’s an adult now, and he’s given me permission to tell this story.

Anyway, when he was little, Eli was anxious. He was afraid of the scary characters in Disney movies, and haircuts, and shots, and splinters, and bees, normal-seeming fears although there were quite a few of them. Initially, we did what most parents do: we reassured him, and when that didn’t work, we helped him avoid the things he was afraid of: we stopped going to movies, we let his hair get shaggy, we stayed away from flowers, because of bees and rough wood because of splinters.

But like some weird monster, his level of fear continued to grow. He started panicking whenever he needed to go outside afraid he might encounter a bee, and it became difficult for him to touch anything made of wood.

Life went on as it does, and Eli became fascinated by history. When he was about 10, we decided to go to Fort Ticonderoga, a wooden fort with plenty of splinter potential. We did lots of planning: he would wear shoes, close-toed shoes, long sleeve shirt, long pants, no exposed skin. We promised him he wouldn’t need to touch anything, and he was actually really excited to go.

The day we went was a beautiful 90-degree day. We tramped around the fort for hours until we were exhausted. My husband and I plopped down on a bench to rest, a wooden bench. A wooden bench, Eli absolutely could not sit on nor could he move himself close enough to sit on one of our laps because he still might touch the bench. He couldn’t sit on the floor of the fort because it was a wooden floor or leaned against a wall — a wooden wall.

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So he stood; rivers of sweat running down his face, utterly exhausted, utterly defeated by his fears. He stood because there was nothing else he could do. He stood, and he sobbed. It seems obvious in retrospect that we let things go too far, but somehow, the view from inside was different. We didn’t realize how bad things had gotten, how debilitating his fears had become not until that moment, that pivotal moment, when it became crystal clear that we needed help.

I brought Eli to a therapist who quickly deduced he’s 10 years old: he’s afraid of splinters, shots, and bees; long, sharp objects that poke. Clearly, this was a fear of penetration related to — get ready for Freud-Oedipal issues, his wish to overthrow his father to have possession of me.

I set there listening to this well-respected psychologist thinking how can this possibly help us, and the answer was it couldn’t. So I went on a quest determined to find a way to help my son.

I landed on cognitive behavioral therapy also known as CBT, an approach to treatment based on the premise that we all have an inner triangle based on our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions. The idea is that these are all interrelated: our thoughts influence our feelings, thoughts and feelings drive our actions, actions link back to what we think and believe, and so on.

So the way to change a problematic feeling like paralyzing anxiety is to change the associated thoughts and actions. That made sense, and it was specific, it gave us something to work on. Rather than continuing to help him avoid the things he was afraid of, we needed Eli to change what he was doing, to pay attention to the action part of the triangle. We needed him to go to the movies, go outside, touch wood, to see that he could do these things without getting hurt. Changing what he was doing would help change what he was thinking, and his feelings would change from there.

We decided to start with bees and went on a campaign to get Eli to go outside. He’s maybe 11 at this point, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say that his life revolved around Legos: big sets, complicated castles, and forts, and islands, and ships. He would do just about anything for money for Legos.

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You can probably guess where this is going: I bribed him. “Just go outside,” I said, “You’re not going to get stung. And if you do, I’ll give you ten dollars.”

I’m going to pause the story for a moment.

I made two major mistakes with that intervention: the first was telling him, in a definitive way, he wasn’t going to get stung. How crazy is that? How could I possibly know whether or not he gets stung? What I should have told him was that a sting was unlikely which would have been more accurate and also more useful because an important part of overcoming anxiety is learning to take a chance, to take action even though you feel unsure, to be nervous and do something anyway.

My other mistake was offering a reward for the bad thing happening. What I should have been rewarding was the part of the CBT triangle I wanted him to be paying attention to: the action. I should have rewarded his going outside. I could have bought the Lego set he wanted and given him a single piece every time he went out. That would have been rewarding his bravery, his willingness to face his fear, step into the uncertainty not the bee sting.

But I didn’t know then what I know now, so I did the wrong thing. Although it accomplished something important: got him to go outside.

My husband was on the same page, dangling the same carrot, a bigger carrot. “If you go outside,” he said, “and get stung, I’ll give you 20 dollars.”

So, Eli went outside with great trepidation but fueled by the possibility of a pay-off, and he did get stung, something like five minutes after we told him he wouldn’t. He handled the sting itself pretty well, which is typically how it goes. The possibility of a bad thing is often worse than the actual bad thing, and he was delighted that we now had to fork over 30 dollars; that was half a Lego ship back then. Money well spent as far as we were concerned, because he saw that he could survive the sting.

He went outside more willingly after that, nervous but liking the financial gain, and gradually, his fears abated. It wasn’t the perfect cure although he did get over his fear of long, sharp objects that poked enough to take up fencing which was enough to propel me further into CBT as a theoretical orientation.

I learned more about how to use cognitive behavioral strategies without the bribes, and it transformed the way I worked with children, anxious children, who got better, so much better that I decided to write a self-help book to bring these skills to a wider audience.