In this video, we’ll be talking about how changing your behavior can help you break free from your anxiety and improve your mood. First, we’ll teach you how to evaluate your current behavioral responses to situations that provoke fear and sadness, so you can decide if they are helpful or unhelpful. Next, we’ll show you how to develop and implement a personal action plan to “unhook” your brain from unhelpful behaviors that are keeping you stuck in fear/anxiety and sadness/depression.
The Behavioral Piece of an Emotional Reaction
Action urges. Whenever we have an emotional reaction to a situation, we have the urge to do (or not do) something. For example:
- when we feel anger, we have the urge to attack
- when we feel fear, we have the urge to run away/avoid
- when we feel sadness, we have the urge to withdraw, isolate, and disengage from our usual activities
These action urges are “hard-wired” into our brains—they’re an essential part of the emotional reaction (remember: emotions are designed to motivate action that promotes survival)
Acting on Urges
Acting on these emotion-driven urges always has consequences. Sometimes these consequences are clearly desirable (“All gain, no pain”). Examples:
- Fear (running from mountain lion): If a mountain lion strolls into your Econ class, triggering some fear in you, you’ll have the urge to run away (or perhaps freeze up and play dead, if it’s too late to run). If you were doing an after-the-fact cost-benefit analysis here, would you recommend acting on the urge to run? YES—necessary to escape serious and imminent threat to life and limb
- Sadness (withdrawing after loss): When you’ve suffered a significant loss that triggers some sadness in you (loss of important relationship, role, opportunity or dream), you’ll have the urge to withdraw to a safe space, isolate, and disengage from your usual activities. If you were doing an after-the-fact cost-benefit analysis here, would you recommend acting on the urge to withdraw? YES—gives you time/space to focus on processing the loss, without having to worry about mtn lions and other distractions.
But sometimes things are more complicated: acting on the urge gives you some short term gain (typically, relief from the unpleasant sensations of the emotion), but also some long term pain (which is often much more unpleasant than those sensations). Examples:
- Fear (running from professor with exam): Suppose it’s not a mtn lion that strolls into your Econ class, but a professor with an exam. If you feel a flash of fear, you’ll have the urge to run away–even though the professor is not a real threat to your safety (false alarm). Is acting on this urge (bolting from exam room) going to be helpful?
- ST consequences? Immediate relief from those unpleasant sensations
- LT consequences? Pretty negative (get zero on test, prevents you from learning that you can cope with taking tests, increases your anxiety about your academic performance, interferes with your ability to enjoy college, etc).
- If you were doing an after-the-fact cost-benefit analysis here, would you recommend acting on the urge to run or not? NO (explain)
- Sadness (staying in cave after have processed loss). After you’ve processed stay in your cave ruminating about it, rather than going back out, resuming your normal activities and re-engaging with others. Is acting on this urge to continue hiding going to be helpful now?
- ST consequences? Immediate relief from anticipated discomfort of trying to re-engage with your life while you’re feeling a little down.
- LT consequences? Again, pretty negative—keeps you from having experiences that could help you feel better (like getting some good food, sunshine and exercise, hanging out with friends, discovering that you can still function even in the face of loss); interferes with your ability to move on from the loss; makes you feel even more alone; etc).
- If you were doing an after-the-fact cost-benefit analysis here, would you recommend acting on the urge to run or not? NO
Opposite Action: Doing the OPPOSITE of what the emotion is telling you to do/not do. For example,
- When you’re feeling fearful or anxious and having the urge to run away, act opposite to that urge by APPROACHING the thing you’re afraid of (“feel the fear and do it anyway”)
- When you’re feel sad or depressed and having the urge to withdraw, act opposite to that urge by GETTING ACTIVE again
Why this works: Gives your brain new learning experiences that “teach” it more helpful ways of responding to the situation. To illustrate
- Fear/anxiety: Approaching the situation you fear gives your brain new information that can contradict past learning (e.g., that the situation is not as dangerous as you think it will be; it’s generally not as bad as you thought it would be and you can usually handle it better than you thought you could).
- Sadness/depression: Getting active again after loss gives your brain the chance to experience positive emotions again, to discover that you can still function, and to start rebuilding your life
Each time you use opposite action in a situation, you create new associations in your brain, which contradict the earlier associations. As you continue doing opposite action again and again in that situation, you’ll be creating a new pathway in your brain—an alternative to that old one that isn’t working so well. The more you repeat the opposite action, the stronger this new pathway will get. And the less you use the old pathway, the weaker it will get. Over time, your brain will get so good at following the new pathway that it hardly thinks about the old one—and the new behavioral response will become a habit.
How to do Opposite Action, Step by Step
Tips for Implementing an Opposite Action Plan
- At first, opposite action will not make the emotion go away (although it can help it pass more quickly). You will likely still feel the emotion as you are doing the opposite action. This will be unpleasant, but …
- To create lasting change in your brain, you need to let yourself FEEL that emotion
- To “rewire” your brain’s response, you need to activate the existing circuitry
- Analogy to craftsman reshaping metal (has to heat it up in order to make it pliable enough to reshape)
- Can use square breathing to help yourself calm down before you start the OA
- But don’t use other DT strategies (like distraction, self-soothe, etc)—will interfere with the learning process.
- Same goes for alcohol or other drugs – using them to “numb” your emotions when you’re doing OA interferes with the learning process.
- Start small, with OAs that move you just a little past your comfort zone (looking at photos of dogs). When you’ve repeated those actions enough to “teach” your brain you can handle the situation, move on to OAs that are a little more difficult for you (looking at video of dog playing, watching dog out the window, being in the same room as a friendly dog, touching a friendly dog)
- Don’t go too fast too soon, but do push yourself a little: Each time you do an OA, try to make yourself do it for a little longer than you think you can handle. (If you think you can handle looking at photo of a dog for 5 minutes, push yourself to do 7 minutes instead). This will enhance the learning process.
- When you do OAs, there’s always a risk that the outcome will sometimes be less positive than you hoped it would be (even a gentle and friendly dog will sometimes do things that activate your fear circuits, like bark when the doorbell rings or the dog next door starts barking)
- But the experience still gives your brain some important new learning (that being around a barking dog isn’t as bad as you expected; or that it is as bad as you expected, but you can cope with it—don’t have to run away)
- Be kind to yourself: OA work is hard—it requires courage and perseverance and it’s often uncomfortable. When you notice the unpleasant sensations of the emotion in your body, tell yourself: “I’m rewiring my brain — need to ‘heat up’ its circuitry to reshape it.”
- Be patient: To achieve lasting change in your brain, you need to repeat the new behavior many times over an extended period.
- Old path/new path metaphor: Imagine that you’re trying to cut a new path through the woods, because you’ve decided the one you’ve been using isn’t working very well. The first handful of times you walk the new path, you’ll find the going pretty rough (hard to see where you’re going, weeds and underbrush will “grab” you and slow you down, etc).
- But if you keep walking that new path over and over again, your steps will eventually beat down the underbrush, smooth out the trail, and make the going easier.
- At the same time, as you use the old path less and less, weeds and underbrush will grow up in it, until it’s harder to follow than the new path … and you’ll develop the habit of using the new one instead
- If working your plan starts to feel too hard, reach out for help. If you’re already working with a therapist or in the process of finding one, ask your therapist for help with your plan. If you don’t have a therapist, come in during our walk-in hours to get connected with one. Good luck!
Homework: Practice Opposite Action with worksheet