ID-100137119Have you ever been afraid of doing something and the longer you avoided it; the more your fear grew?  Or maybe you felt depressed and wanted to hide from the world, and the more you withdrew, the more depressed you felt.  This happens because our emotions feed themselves; in other words they are self-propagating.  And every emotion triggers an action urge.  The problem is that oftentimes in our modern society the action urge is unjustified for the situation and leads to greater suffering.  See if you can relate to any of the following scenarios:

  • You get in a fight with your partner.  You feel alone, sad, and afraid.  You withdraw to protect yourself from getting hurt.  Now you feel even more alone, sad, and afraid.
  • An unexpected bill comes in the mail.  You feel anxious about your finances and you’re afraid to open it.  You leave it in the pile of unopened mail and you feel increasing anxiety each time you see it sitting there unopened.
  • You feel depressed about your body.  A friend invites you to go to dinner and you turn her down because you just want to hide and not leave the house.  Then you feel even more depressed.

Do you see how in each of these situations the action urge to avoid, withdraw, or hide led to increased suffering and got in the way of living a fulfilling life?  Most of the time, we are unaware that this process is taking place and we get caught up in a vicious cycle that perpetuates these bad feelings and prevents us from living the life we want to live.

So why does this happen?  Emotions serve important functions in our lives, including providing us with information and motivating us to act.  The action urge to avoid something distressing or threatening is hard-wired in our bodies and developed to help us survive.  It’s called our fight or flight response and fight or flight is justified when there is a threat to our:

  • Life
  • Health
  • or Well-being

Practicing Opposite Action

But what if our life, health, or well-being isn’t being threatened?  Then acting on our fight or flight response can become a problem.  Now imagine in the above situations, instead of avoiding, withdrawing, or hiding; you practiced what is called opposite action.  You get in a fight with your partner and instead of withdrawing; you reach out to him or her.  An unexpected bill comes in the mail and even though it is scary, you open it.  You feel depressed about your body and when your friend asks you to dinner, you go.  What do you think would happen to the anxiety, fear, sadness, and depression that you were feeling?  Most likely, the feelings would decrease because you’re no longer feeding the emotion by engaging in its action urge.

In working with people who suffer from eating disorders, body image dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety; oftentimes one of our goals is to decrease avoidance behaviors – such as withdrawing from people, avoiding certain situations, binging and purging, overeating, or restricting.  In the moment, these avoidance behaviors provide temporary relief and the person feels better.  Yet in the long term, they perpetuate the problem and cause pain and suffering.  This is where practicing opposite action, a concept from DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), comes in and can be one helpful skill in moving towards your values and goals.

Now keep in mind that opposite action only leads to a decrease in the emotion if the action urge is unjustified for the situation.  If your life, health, or well-being is being threatened; the action urge is justified and do what you need to do to take care of yourself in that situation.

Logo smallI offer individual, couples, and group therapy services in the Denver Metro area and specialize in eating disorders and disordered eating, body image, depression, anxiety, and personal growth.  Please contact me at catherine@embracestrengthcounseling.com or 303.720.9424 with any questions or to schedule an appointment.  For more information about me and my services, visit my website.

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