Does anxiety limit the things you do? Maybe you’d like to go out with friends or catch up at a family gathering, but the idea of being around a bunch of people is too overwhelming. Besides, there are all those important things that need to be done around the house; cleaning, computer projects, cooking, great Netflix movies, and that book siting next to your bed you’ve been meaning to read. For an anxious person, the list of reasons are endless. Home is your safety zone.
The Tiger Named Agoraphobia.
Anxiety is like having a little tiger cub tied up in your front yard. It starts out a bit scary but it’s certainly not going to eat you alive. You learn to avoid situations where it might pounce on you and slowly adapt to this new companion. Let’s call this one, Agoraphobia, but it could be any kind of anxiety. Your tiger cub grows. It’s feeding off your “avoidance” and each day it gets a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger. Over time, it becomes so threatening, you don’t even want to open the front door.
Avoidance is a natural response with anxiety: avoidance of crowds in the supermarket, avoidance of groups of friends, avoidance of social gatherings, even avoidance of your next-door neighbor that’s leaning on your fence petting the tiger. Each day, Agoraphobia grows stronger. He becomes more threatening. He stands between you and the outside world. Every time you open your door, Agoraphobia is there giving you a menacing stare, letting you know something bad is going to happen if you try to leave. After a while, you respect the tiger and look for ways to stay home and make Agoraphobia and yourself happy.
Maria had her own baby tiger. She went to work during the day and as soon as she came home; the shoes came off, the clothing was thrown into the wash pile, and the TV came on. Her tiger was still a cub. She could go out with close friends, and attend the occasional wedding, funeral or office party.
When Maria found a boyfriend, Max, it got easier to feed the tiger. “Max, could you get some ice cream from the store for me?” Maria asked so she could avoid the crowds at the store. Max would say, “Sure, what flavor?” He had no idea he was feeding the tiger. As the tiger grew, Max became more of the avoidance strategy for Maria. Soon, he even became part of the threat. “Max, I’ve got so much to do today–cleaning, vacuuming, washing clothes… it all takes time. Why don’t we just stay home?” Max was okay with it at first. The relationship was still young, but, every time Max asked Maria to go out to a baseball game, or to his sister’s house for a party, Maria would look at her tiger snarling and menacing. It was easier to decline.
Then one day, Maria and Max broke up. It was over a simple event. She asked him to pick up some milk from the store after work. He said, “I can’t. Plus, I’ve been the only one getting stuff from the store for a straight three months now.” Maria could tell he was frustrated. Then Max said, “Why don’t you go to the store and show me that I’m more than just a delivery boy?” Maria looked at her tiger, it was the end of the day when the local Walmart would be packed. She felt scared and found herself yelling at Max. She said, “Forget the whole thing!” and hung up. But Maria wasn’t really angry at Max. She was angry at the tiger for blocking her freedom. Max had already been feeling suffocated by Maria’s fear of the tiger. He wanted more out of life, so he never went back.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t just Maria’s. Here is one forum on MD Junction that speaks to how the pain extends it beyond the individual who suffers with this condition.
4 Ways to Start Setting the Tiger Free
1. Start by focusing on the things you have control over.
You may not have control over the crowds at the supermarket, but you do have control over changing the time or place you go shopping. You also have control over how you enlist help from your partner. You can ask him to get you ice cream at the store, or you can ask him to help you problem solve getting out of the house.
–The important thing is to leave your house and go get what you need; to keep your power and your freedom–to avoid nursing the tiger.
–You may not be able to control the anxiety you feel when you’re away from home, but you do have control over your response to it. See my post on Anxiety and Control for some powerful ways to respond to high anxiety.
2. Keep it Simple
When anxiety threatens to stop you from leaving home, look for smallways to help you walk out the door.
.- If the store you normally go to is packed on Saturday mornings, plan to go late in the evening or early Sunday.
–Continue adjusting the time to get comfortable with more people.
-If your anxiety grows when you’re standing on line, use the opportunity to:
–Listen to music from your playlist
–Make a list of things you want to do later that day
–Read a magazine at the checkout
–Call or text a friend
Bottom line: Find ways to distract yourself. Make it easy on yourself so you feel more in control.
3. Be Creative
– What excites you? Many times we avoid going out of the house because it conjures images of things we dread. But what if you come up with a place or activity that gets the juices flowing. Something where you say, “I can’t wait…I love to (insert activity).
– If your lost for ideas, try thinking back to when you were a kid. What out-of-the-house activities made you count the seconds before you could get started? Going to a park? Biking? Walking through the woods? Flying a balsa wood airplane? Throwing a frisbee with your dog? Playing a game? It doesn’t matter what it is. The real question is, “Can I do this as an adult in a way I can have fun just like when I was a kid.”
– If you’re still lost for ideas, try searching online for some MeetUps in your local area. There are so many types of groups doing so many different things, it’s almost impossible to complete a search without finding something you could enjoy doing. For instance, some people create groups about meditating, books they’re reading, kayaking or learning to navigate in new places. If you don’t find anything you like, you can even develop a group for tiger owners who are interested in setting their tigers free.
4. Stay Committed
Often times you can start with the best intentions, “I’m going to do it!” But, motivation might weaken as the time draws near to walk out the door. The tiger may sense you’re preparing to release him and he’s pretty comfortable with the nice shelter and meals you’ve been providing.
Stay committed by scheduling and then telling a friend or coach about your plans. “On Sunday, the 12th of November, I’m going to go to a family reunion.” It’s harder to avoid when you’ve made a commitment and shared it with someone meaningful. If you want to make it even more compelling, you can promise to pay that person or perform some job for them if you don’t carry through on your commitment.
Once you’ve made the commitment, give yourself the best chance to explore the joys of tiger-free living.
Comment on this post with your “releasing the tiger” event. We’ll even support your effort by checking in to see how it went.