“I know what I’m supposed to do, but it’s just so hard to do it!” Am too broken or too weak?
No. You are not broken or too weak. This is a difficult process. I say all the time that recovery is a simple plan, but that plan is very hard to execute. Let’s look at the two main reasons why this is such a hard road to travel.
Why is recovery so damn hard?
There are many reasons that all come together to make the process of recovery from an anxiety issue as hard as it is. In this episode, let’s focus on what I think are the big two. These are the primary reasons why recovery can be so challenging.
Humans HATE Fear and Discomfort
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know here. The bad news is that recovery requires that we intentionally and repeatedly move into a state of fear and discomfort.
Other than the outliers that seem to thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with doing really scary things, the vast majority of us are drawn to comfort and safety. I don’t mean to say that humans are fragile and can’t handle things. Humans are amazingly strong, resourceful, and resilient! It’s just that we usually only want to use those qualities when we absolutely have to. We tend to reserve displays of courage and strength for life and death situations. We don’t really want to have to be brave unless our lives literally depend on it.
Even then, as anyone with panic disorder or agoraphobia will attest, we tend to prefer FLIGHT over FIGHT whenever possible. When the chips are down, we tend to prefer to flee rather than to turn and fight unless we have no choice in the matter. Flight likely gives us a better chance of survival in any crisis situation so escape has evolved into the the default reaction for most of us. When the zombie apocalypse happens, most people will want to run to a zombie-free zone rather than going all Army of Darkness on the brain eaters.
Humans will tend to do everything they can to AVOID situations that make us uncomfortable or afraid, then we will RUN from those situations when they arise. Given that recovery is about doing the exact opposite of avoiding and running, this is one major reason why the recovery process is quite difficult to navigate consistently.
Recovery Experiences Are NOT Conducive To Forming Good Habits
In podcast episode 189 we talked about how recovery is not swift, sudden or dramatic. Rather, recovery is about forming new recovery-focused habits, then practicing them over and over. It’s not glamorous, but it’s how the job gets done.
The thing is, when we compare experiences that help build strong habits, and experiences that help us toward recovery, they are polar opposites. Recovery experiences – being afraid and uncomfortable on purpose – are more well suited to the inhibition or blocking of good habit forming. We don’t like to have negative experiences (see reason one above), and we sure as hell don’t want to repeat them when we have them. So there’s almost nothing about intentionally creating panic or near panic that sounds encouraging in terms of forming productive recovery habits.
When we do our recovery tasks – our exposures and meeting our challenges – the result is discomfort and/or fear. Humans best form habits when we get to repeat experiences with positive results. Fear and discomfort are not positive in anyone’s book, at least not on a surface level. So there is no mystery to the fact that when you do something scary, you will not want to do it again. This is what creates the disorder in the first place, and now we want to do exactly that to fix it? Sounds crazy!
In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes four components of problem solving that help us create our “programmed responses” … our habits. This is his Cue, Craving, Response, Reward model. In that model we form productive habits that create positive processes and positive outcomes when we can easily see clear cues that tell us to act in a way that will satisfy a craving. Our response is the action we take, and the reward we get after acting is the satisfaction of that craving.
- I have a headache and want it to go away – craving.
- I know there is a bottle of asprin in my medicine cabinet and I know that asprin will help my headache – cue.
- I take the asprin – response.
- My headache goes away – reward.
This is a simple, easy to understand and interact with sequence that produces an immediate reward. I will quickly form an asprin-taking habit that effectively addresses my headache problem in the future.
In the anxiety recovery process, this NOT the case
- I panic because I am afraid to be afraid. I want the panic and anxiety to go away – craving.
- I see triggers everywhere that make the panic and anxiety worse. Nothing I have tried has made it go away consistently – there is no clear cue.
- I try my best to avoid all possible triggers because they make things worse instead of better – response (avoidance).
- If I avoid skillfully enough, I get temporary relief – reward.
The craving is pretty clear, but we have to use our big old human brains to find the hidden cues that tell us what we need to do to satisfy it. Going TOWARD the fear is in no way obvious because we hate that, so we have to rely on more advanced brain functions to see past the obvious and compute possible craving satisfaction solutions. Anxious brains are not very good at computing, are they? This means we take the most readily available cues – triggers – and default to avoiding them as a result. Then we throw random things at the problem hoping, but not knowing if they will work or not. This is not terribly effective in terms of productive habit building.
In the response phase, we see that recovery focused actions are HARD. Avoidance focused actions are much easier. Go toward fear and be intentionally terrified, or stay away, avoid, hide, run, or escape. The easy stuff builds habits. The hard stuff does not. Except that the easy stuff builds maladaptive habits that keep us stuck.
In the reward phase, we find ourselves confronted once again with the need to infer and compute future rewards to find the “goodness”. The immediate reward of doing hard things is feeling bad. That’s not a reward at all. If we choose the avoidance response as default, then our reward might be temporary relief from our discomfort, which is better than feeling bad and reinforces the avoidance habit going forward.
Jame Clear writes in his book that to form a habit you should meet the following conditions:
- The craving must be attractive. We have this nailed. We all want the anxiety to go away.
- The cue must be obvious. Nope. There’s nothing obvious about this!
- The response must be easy. Again, we strike out. Recovery focused responses and actions are HARD, not easy.
- The reward must be satisfying. Oh well, thanks for playing, but recovery focused rewards are far off and impossible to feel right now, so not very satisfying at all.
Want to build the good habits that add up to recovery? We’re fighting an uphill battle on three of the four requirements!
Why, then, is forming good recovery habits, and therefore the whole process of recovery, so difficult? Because everything about the process requires that we look past the obvious and the automatically conditioned. We must infer and compute cues to action that are not obvious to us and go against our natural grain. We must look to future, sometimes long-delayed rewards. We don’t get to hit the lever and get a food pellet like rats in a lab. We have to find difficult activities that we can’t see, then do them to get delayed rewards that we can’t feel. This is what it takes to develop good recovery habits, and that is NOT easy.
This doesn’t make it impossible, though. People all around you in the anxiety and recovery community are doing it every day. It is often a struggle, but it is getting done. HOW they’re doing it is always the million dollar question that we can’t answer in the scope of a single podcast episode, but when you’re thinking that you’re broken or too weak because you can’t seem to get the hang of recovery, think back to what you’ve heard or read here today.
You’re not broken and not too weak. You’re just a human like all the rest of us, and you’re having a hard time with things that humans are designed to have a hard time doing.
Remember this, think about this, then let yourself off the hook and try again. Practice makes progress in this game, but only if you understand why you’re doing this and why you’re struggling. These are two primary reasons why, and knowing this is a good place. tostart.
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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)