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Fighting Fire with Fire: Rack up as Much Anxiety as You Can!

man in parkMost people, who have more anxiety than they want, work hard to rid themselves of their anxiety. They try relaxation training, meditation, medication, and more, all in a desperate attempt to conquer uncomfortable, distressing feelings. And who can blame them? After all, isn’t that the goal of therapy—to rid yourself of anxiety, uncertainty, doubts, and discomfort once and for all?

Well, yes and no. Of course most therapists would love for you to be able to feel calm, relaxed, and peaceful all of the time. However, that goal isn’t possible for anybody. Life is full of unpredictable, often random, dangers, hassles, and perils. Therefore, if you have the goal of eliminating these things, you will almost certainly fail.

So, I first recommend that you give up on the unrealistic goal of purging distress from your life. But then, I have something far more radical to suggest: Welcome anxiety, uncertainty, doubts, and distress into your life! Walk right up to anxiety and let it know that you’re ready to take it on. Seek every single opportunity you can to actually feel and experience anxiety!

What, you say? Have I lost my mind? Am I failing to understand how horrible anxiety is for you?

Actually, I think I do understand how uncomfortable anxiety can be. And I know how much those with anxiety wish to be rid of it. But the only sure fire way to master anxiety is through a process known as habituation. Habituation occurs whenever you encounter a feared situation, event, or object over and over and over again. Ever so slowly, but just as surely, your distress decreases as you go through this process. And it does so by gradually increasing your exposure to your fears.

The key term here is “gradually.” Take a simple case of someone who gravely fears spiders to the extent that she avoids going outside, has her apartment sprayed with toxic chemicals every week, and sprays insecticide around her desk every day. Clearly, her spider phobia is costing her dearly—her health may suffer; she likely annoys her coworkers, and she suffers miserably from worries and anxiety about spiders.

The treatment for spider phobics is much the same as it is for other anxiety problems. I would have this patient ever so gradually expose herself to small spiders (at first encased in a cage) and then move on to looking at pictures of fearsome spiders, then deal with small spiders at a short distance, and so on. Eventually, most people who go through graduated exposure find themselves no longer controlled and dominated by their anxiety. But this improvement comes from their willingness to actively confront their fears one step at a time.

If you have mild problems with anxiety, you may wish to try this approach on your own. Break your fears into a series of gradual steps and then start confronting them one at a time. Remain in contact with each step until your anxiety drops some. We discuss this process in Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Edition) in great detail, but you can also find a lot of information about the approach by Googling.

Make a game out of confronting your anxieties. Rate every fear and anxiety on a scale of 1 to 100 and then go out and rack up as many points as you can. Welcome anxiety! Embrace it. Tell it to give you its best shot. Go into the ring and confront your anxiety. You can’t win by running away—that just makes things worse.

Finally, If your anxiety problems are serious, seek a professional for help and guidance with this approach.

Young man in park photo available from Shutterstock.

Fighting Fire with Fire: Rack up as Much Anxiety as You Can!

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D.

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and a Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. He is also a member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University. He specializes in the treatment of adolescents and adults with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, anger, depression, and personality disorders. Dr. Elliott is coauthor of: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Ed), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Why Can't I Get What I Want?, Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?, and Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. His website is:

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APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2012). Fighting Fire with Fire: Rack up as Much Anxiety as You Can!. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Jan 2012
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