This week on The Anxious Truth we’re talking about the concept of “white knuckling” through exposures and through anxiety and fear in general. White knuckling is the term we use to describe the act of holding on tightly and fighting through an exposure or a challenging anxiety experience just to get through it and back to safety.  Imaging gripping something so hard that your knuckles turn white.  That’s what we’re talking about.

I’m often asked when white knuckling ends, so lets talk about that.


The Highlights

White knuckling generally ends when you decide it will end.  It’s important to recognize that while you may insist that the act of bracing, holding on, and fighting is automatic and outside your control, it is not. It is not easy to let go and relax in the face of fear, but it is possible.  You have a choice here, even when that choice is hard to exercise.  But understanding that there is choice – and therefore power and agency in the process – is critical in ending the counterproductive practice of white knuckling through your fear.

Choosing to let go and allow the experience of fear, anxiety and panic to happen without resistance involves being brave. Bravery is that ingredient in recovery that most people get stuck on because nobody wants to be brave.  More accurately, we don’t want to have to be brave.  We hope that we are, but often insist that we are not.  This is an error.  You are brave.  Being afraid does not mean you are not brave, it just means you are afraid.  Being brave means acting even when you are afraid.

Remember that this is never about doing things that are dangerous.  They only FEEL dangerous but they are not.

Letting go is a thing we practice. It’s totally OK to let go for a few minutes at a time if that’s all you can manage right now.  In this case, practice leads to progress, not perfection. Shoot for progress, and don’t worry about trying to not be afraid.  Letting go – ending the white knuckling – does not mean that you will automatically and instantly feel cool, calm, and collected.  You will not. So … practice.  We LEARN to end the white knuckling. It doesn’t kick in overnight.

As usual, this is a crappy deal, but it is the deal we have, so we must work with it.  I know this may not have been the answer you were hoping for, but it is the answer you need so take some time to consider what we’ve said here and how you might apply it in your situation little by little.  The first leap into the unknown is always the hardest, but you can do it.  I know you can.


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Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.