Taking Opposite Action
When you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder – panic attacks, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, etc. – your natural tendency will be to do whatever you can to avoid feeling anxious or afraid. This is to be expected as human beings naturally seek safety and comfort. Natural though it may be, this approach is not helpful in any way. In fact, retreating and avoiding your anxiety will only make things worse. What we want in recovery is opposite action!
In reality, the path to success involves doing the exact opposite of what you want to do. This can be difficult because it means you must summon the courage to face your fear, and you must ignore your survival and safety instincts. Understanding and embracing the “opposite strategy” can help to propel you forward when all other factors in your life are pulling you backward.
The “Opposite Strategy”
“I’m the opposite of every man you’ve ever met.” – George Costanza (‘Seinfeld’)
The plan is simple. Think about what you want to do, especially when you’re feeling badly, and do the exact opposite.
- If you want to cancel your plan to have lunch with a friend …don’t. Do the opposite! Don’t cancel. Go, no matter how you may feel.
- If you want to stay in bed and hide under the covers … don’t. Do the opposite! Get up, take a shower, get dressed.
- If you want to run back home because you’re worried that you might have a panic attack … don’t. Do the opposite! Stay where you are and let the panic come if it will.
- If you want to check your pulse or visit WebMD to see if you’re dying …don’t. Do the opposite! Keep your hands off your wrists or neck and turn off your computer. Just let the sensations be there with you without reacting to them and you’ll learn through direct experience that you are not in any danger.
- If you want to complain about how people “don’t understand” …. don’t. Do the opposite! Take an objective look at yourself and your behaviors, and put yourself into the shoes of your husband or wife or friend or whomever. Try to see how they would have a hard time understanding why you’re afraid to go your grandma’s birthday party.
- If you want to go online to seek validation from others that also suffer with anxiety related issues … don’t. Do the opposite! Seek encouragement and empowerment instead. Seek inspiration from those that are making progress ahead of you. Seek success stories and let them show you the way forward.
I can list pages upon pages of these, but you get the idea.
Its Not Automatic
Doing the opposite is not automatic for any of us. In fact, its very difficult because it requires concentration, focus and a healthy dose of both self-awareness and self-honesty. Don’t be disheartened if it takes you a while to get good at this.
In order for the “opposite strategy” to be truly helpful, there are some important points that you have to be aware of.
- You will be uncomfortable.
- You will be afraid. More afraid in the beginning. Less as you progress.
- You MUST do the opposite no matter how you feel. Unless you are physically ill or incapacitated due to actual injury, make no excuses to retreat and avoid. That does nothing to help you.
- You MUST be tenacious and persistent. Be aware of your decisions at all times so you can do the opposite when needed, even on “bad days”.
- Be sure that the people close to you know what you’re doing. If you’re frustrated by a lack of support or understanding in your life, showing an effort can go a very long way toward building that personal support base we all need. In most cases you don’t need to go from housebound to a world cruise in a week. Even a few trips to the local shopping mall can turn your family and friends around and get them in your corner.
Full Transcript of This Episode
Today we have what I think is an interesting topic. It’s something that I call the opposite strategy. Now, this is nothing new. A lot of people online have talked about this, but I thought it was worth dedicating an episode of the podcast too. So if you’re dealing with an anxiety disorder, and in my case I’m usually talking about things like panic attacks, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety disorder. Your natural tendency is going to be to do whatever you can to avoid feeling anxious or afraid. Now, this is pretty normal. Human beings come wired for the factory with kind of a inborn drive to seek safety and comfort. So we expect this to be the case. At natural, though it may be. However, the approach of avoiding feeling anxious or afraid at all costs is really not helpful anyway.
So in fact, when you’re dealing with anxiety disorders, retreating and avoiding your anxiety really only makes things worse on the long term because it ingrains that avoidance behavior and it reinforces with the underlying mistaken belief that there’s something to be feared or avoided to keep you safe. And that’s not true. So in reality, the path to success when you’re dealing with anxiety disorders usually involves doing the exact opposite of what you want to do, which is really weird. And it doesn’t make it difficult because it really means you have to summon the courage to face your fear. And above all, it means completely ignoring and going 180 degrees against your built-in sort of survival and safety instincts. But understanding this and embracing this so-called opposite strategy can really help you start to move forward, especially when everything else in your life is sort of pulling you backwards or keeping you stuck.
So when you feel like you’re unable to make progress and you’re not sure what to do next, sometimes just little simple trick the opposite strategy, uh, is something that is worth looking into because it can make a big difference. So what is it? It’s actually a really simple plan. First, think about what you want to do, especially when you’re feeling really badly, like in the middle of a panic attack or when you’re having a very anxious day or you’re faced with, um, maybe a challenge of going out to someplace that you haven’t been to in a long time. Think about what you want to do and then do the exact opposite of that. Now, if you’re a Seinfeld fan, you know the old show Seinfeld and some of you may not even be old enough to necessarily be Seinfeld fans, but, um, there’s a great episode.
It’s one of my most favorite Seinfeld episodes where George, one of the main characters who really kind of has a tough lot in life, he sort of a sad sack. Nothing ever goes his way. He discovers that everything that he’s ever done in his life has been wrong. So every decision he’s ever made has been wrong. And he decides, well, if every decision I’ve ever made is wrong and ev all my instincts are wrong, that if I do the opposite, it must be right. And the episode is actually very funny. I really enjoy it. And it’s about how George has tremendous amounts of success in, in a lot of different areas, his career and, and dating and all kinds of different things just by doing the exact opposite of what he immediately wants to do. And that episode sort of inspired this thinking for me, really going back a few years, and I’ve actually blogged about this before in other forums, but this is where it sort of comes from for me.
Um, so you think about what you want to do, especially when you’re feeling really badly, and then you do the exact opposite of that. So I’ll, I’ll give you a couple of examples here. If you want to cancel, let’s say you have plans. You’ve made plans with an old friend that you haven’t seen in a while to have lunch and that’s approaching and you’re having a lot of anticipatory anxiety about the event. And you, you’d wanna go see your friend and you want to have lunch because you want to live a kind of normal life, but you are really anxious about how you’re gonna feel and you’re afraid to go. So when you want to cancel that plan to have lunch with your old friend, don’t do the opposite. Don’t cancel. So no matter how badly you feel and how afraid you may be to do it, go right.
So when your natural tendency is to want to cancel your plans for lunch with your friend, do the opposite. Don’t cancel it. Go. So if you wake up in the morning and you’re feeling terrible and you, and you think it’s gonna be an awful day and you could barely get outta bed and all you wanna do is stay in bed and hide under the covers, don’t again, do the opposite no matter how badly you feel, get up, take a shower, get dressed and try and have some semblance of a so-called normal day, right? So you wanna do the opposite of what your initial instinct is. This is a big one if you want to run back home. So let’s say you’re out and about and you start to feel anxiety or you worry that you might have a panic attack and you want to run back home right away, cuz that’s your natural instinct to seek the safety of home.
Don’t do it. Don’t do the opposite. Stay right where you are and just let, if the panic is gonna come, let it come if it will. Cuz this is how we learn. You must experience panic in those situations to understand that it can’t hurt you. If you keep running for from it, then you’ll never learn that. So in this case, it’s a perfect example. When you want to run back home, that’s your initial thought, your initial plan, stop, think about it and do the opposite. Stay right where you are. So if you are dealing with some health anxiety issues, and this goes from, you know, major things like running home from the shopping mall or canceling a plan from lunch to little tiny things that you do throughout the day. So let’s say you’re dealing with some health anxiety issues and these are very common.
So if you wanna check your pulse or you want to visit WebMD to see if you’re dying from whatever you’re feeling like at that moment, don’t right? Do the opposite. Keep your hands off your wrists. Don’t touch your neck. So don’t take your pulse and turn off your computer, right? Just let the sensations be there and don’t react to them. And again, this is how we learn through direct experience that those sensations and symptoms are not dangerous to us. Because if you do nothing and just let them be there, nothing will happen. So whether you’re googling like crazy to find out what’s wrong, or you’re constantly checking your pulse or engaging in other little rituals that you think are gonna save you from those symptoms, the same event, the same outcome is gonna be, you’re gonna be fine whether you do those things or not.
So you have to do the opposite of what you wanna do when you wanna check your pulse. Don’t when you wanna check WebMD or Wikipedia or you want to Google your symptoms, don’t right? Do the opposite. Do exactly the opposite. Sit still and don’t move. Turn off your computer. This is one that I think gets a neglected a lot because it’s not just outward behavior sometimes, sometimes it, it’s cognitive as well. The strategy can apply to that sort of thing. So if you want to complain about how the people in your life sort of don’t understand, quote unquote, don’t understand, don’t do it, don’t complain. In fact, do the opposite. So if you want to complain about your friends, your family, your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your employers, whoever you feel is not being compassionate enough or understanding enough or sometimes accommodating enough for your situation, do the opposite.
Think, turn your focus into yourself, which I know sounds counter to what I’ve said in other episodes, but it, it’s a little different. I’m not saying focus in on how you feel, I, I’m saying take an objective look at yourself and your behavior. So instead of trying to complain about what other people are doing, but, and sometimes we all have to do that, we all have to vent now and then, but try to not to do that, right? When you want to do that, stop and do the opposite. Take an objective look at yourself and your behaviors, right? Put yourself into the shoes of your husband or your wife or your boss or your best friend or whoever it may be. And try to see how, why they would have a hard time understanding that you’re afraid to go to your grandma’s birthday party or to the supermarket or the shopping mall or to pick up your kids from school, right?
So that could be really, really, really, really helpful. You know, you don’t underestimate it. And I’m not saying that you have to beat yourself over the head for the way you are, but at sometimes just complaining about how other people don’t understand and are not compassionate and accommodating enough can be very counterproductive. It puts you into that victim mindset. So in this case, when you want to get into the victim mindset, don’t do it. Do exactly the opposite and start to examine what you can do to not be a victim. Try and understand that there’s a reason why they don’t get it sometimes because they, they don’t see the danger because there truly is none. So I go back to something I say all the time and that is that the fear is real, but the danger is not. So take that opportunity to, to stop the complaining that you may usually do and do the opposite.
Like examine your own situation and try and understand why they might not, they might not get it. And that can actually help us reframe our situation and, and get a better view of things. So the other one that I would have to say that kind of goes hand in hand in that is if you want to go online because you want to seek validation from others that also suffer with these things, anxiety disorder, panic disorders, agoraphobia don’t, right? Do the opposite. Instead, seek encouragement and empowerment. Try and find people who are going to encourage you to challenge yourself and move forward, right? Seek inspiration from the people who are already making progress ahead of you. Learn from those who’ve come before us, right? This is a valuable tool no matter what we’re trying to learn in life. And I think again, it sort of plays into that victim mindset and, and do the opposite.
Don’t be a victim. Do the opposite, right? Try and find the positives, the success stories, the encouragement, the empowerment. Find people who will be your cheerleaders and prop you up when you’re down. So it’s just going online to be validated. Then here, it’s okay, we get it, we understand, we all want people who understand and that’s okay. You just can’t make a habit of that. So try not to seek out the, it’s okay, right? Don’t try and seek out sympathy and commiserating. Seek out people who will understand what you’re going through because that’s important, but who will also help encourage you to start to move forward. So instead of seeking validation, do the opposite. Seek encouragement and empowerment to overcome the situation as opposed to validating the situation. Now I could go on for an hour or two just listing things where you should do the opposite.
But again, it’s, you know, if you wanna cancel your plans for lunch, don’t go do the opposite. If you wanna stay in bed, do the opposite. Get up. If you want to run home because you’re feeling panicky, do the opposite. Stay where you are. I can go on and on and on and on and on. But I think the object is just start to recognize. You need to start to recognize that sometimes just stopping for a second before you act and understanding where you’re headed with your next action or your next thought or your next activity, maybe sometimes it’s important to not do that activity, actually do the opposite of the activity. So I think one of the things you have to realize is that this strategy, the opposite strategy, whatever we’re gonna call it, is not automatic. Doing the opposite is not automatic for any of us, you know, in fact, like I said, it’s extremely difficult.
It requires a lot of concentration, it requires focus and it actually requires a pretty healthy dose of both the self-awareness and self honesty, right? So you don’t be disheartened if it takes you a while to get good at this. This is a skill like anything else, cuz it does involve being aware almost all the time of what you’re thinking and what behaviors you’re engaging in and what your habits are. And you really have to look honestly at yourself and see what you’re doing so that you can maybe get into this opposite mode a little bit more often. And in order for this opposite strategy to be truly helpful, there are some points that you have to be aware of. And I say these in almost every episode and I’m gonna keep saying them because they’re true and it’s important to understand them and embrace them and not be worried about them.
So number one, you’re going to be uncomfortable if you’re going to do the opposite. If your natural tendency is to seek comfort and safety and understanding and accommodation and validation and you do the opposite, you’re gonna be uncomfortable. That’s just the way it’s gonna have to be. That’s not forever though. You’re just gonna be uncomfortable in the beginning. And the other thing is, you’re gonna be afraid. That’s number two. So you’re, you’re gonna be afraid, there’s just no right way around that the only way to overcome a fear is to actually face it. So you’re gonna be more afraid in the beginning unless as you progress, but fear is gonna be part of that. It’s just part of the equation. There’s nothing you can do about it. So in order for this strategy to be helpful, you have to accept that you’re going to be uncomfortable for a while and you’re going to be afraid for a while.
And number three is, you’ve gotta do the opposite no matter how you feel. And that’s, uh, that’s huge. And, and so much of this feels like repetition from past episodes and you’re gonna hear a lot of these concepts down the road going forward as well because there really is a lot of repetition in this whole kind of overall strategy here. But you have to start doing the opposite no matter how you feel. So what I always say is, unless you’re physically ill or physically incapacitated due to an actual injury, like you have a broken arm or a broken leg, you can make no excuses to retreat and avoid, right? Making excuses does nothing to help you, nothing. Um, in fact the progress happens on the bad days. So when you feel badly but you act anyway, that’s when you actually make progress. If you wait for a good day when you’re not feeling terribly anxious and then you do the opposite, then you go out instead of staying home, then you go to lunch instead of canceling, that’s great, but there’s not as much benefit there.
You have to act when you’re feeling badly. That’s when that’s when progress actually happens. And I’m gonna use some words that I use all the time here, but number four is you must be tenacious and persistent. You must be tired of me using the word tenacious at this point. I know at least one person who’s listening that might not be tired of tenacious and you know who you are, but you must be tenacious and persistent. And I’m sorry if you are here tired of me hearing, say, hearing me say that. So you have to be aware of the decisions you’re making and the behaviors you’re engaging in at all times. So you can do the opposite when needed, even on those bad days, right? And tenacity doesn’t just mean always getting out the door every day or engaging in your exposure. You have to be tenacious in your mental state also.
So be aware of the decisions you’re making, the rituals you’re engaging in, the behaviors you’re engaging in. Be tenacious and persistent about trying to identify the negative side and doing the opposite to turn it into a positive. And the last point is that you have to be sure that the people close to you know that what know what you’re doing. You know, let them know that you’re using this new strategy. Let them know that you’re doing the opposite. Make a joke of it. Make a Seinfeld reference. They’ll under a lot of people will understand. And I think if you’re frustrated because you may have a lack of support or understanding in your life, sometimes you’re actually seeking accommodation along with that understanding. When you show that you’re making an effort, it can really go a long way toward building that support base. If you feel like you’re lacking because people don’t understand, they don’t know why you can’t, you know, go to this family function or go out to dinner with friends, just showing them that you’re making the effort that you know what I, I’m thinking that I, you know, I want to cancel tonight, but I, I’m gonna do the opposite of that.
I’m gonna go and it’s gonna be hard for me and bear with me cuz I’m gonna be terrified, but I’m gonna do it anyway. I’m gonna do the opposite of what I want to do. Let them know what you’re doing. Um, you know, in a lot of cases you don’t have to go from completely housebound to a world cruise in five days to build that support system and to gain the, the support of your, the people in, you know, that are close in your life. Sometimes even just a few trips to the local shopping mall can turn your family and friends around and really can get them in your corner and turn them into cheerleaders and supporters for you, right? So those are the things you have to remember. You know, you’re, you’re gonna be uncomfortable, you’re gonna be afraid. You have to do this opposite thing.
You have to act, you have to do your work no matter how you feel because the real progress happens on the bad days, not necessarily on the good. You have to be tenacious and persistent not only in your exposure work and your beha in your overt behaviors, but also in being aware of what you’re doing. That self-awareness you have to be tenacious and persistent in self-awareness so you can start to make good decisions and identify when you have to do the opposite. And include the people in your life in, in this strategy. Let them know that you’re making a change. So if they feel like you’ve been kind of stuck and you’re you’re holding them back, or they’re getting frustrated with you and it’s a problem for you cuz they’re not understanding and accommodating and and supporting you, then let them know that you’re trying something new.
Tell them about the the opposite strategy. Tell ’em about some goofball in New York that told you about it. Whatever it takes, it’ll help. They will help if they know what you’re doing.
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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)
Intro/Ending Music Credit: Title Autumn Day (Kevin MacLeod – incompetech.com) Licensed underCreative Commons: By Attribution 3.0