Why taking time to “get over my anxiety” is nonsense or what I learned from my figure skating coach as a psychologist
While preparing for my second ice skating test I once had a nasty fall and a brain concussion. When I went back on ice after a few days my coach asked me straight away to do again that exercise. My immediate reaction was to tell her that I didn’t want to do that one yet as I needed more time to get over my anxiety. To which she replied: “Just try it, I’ll help you. Waiting longer will just make the things worse.”
A few days later my confidence was back to normal.
Telling my coach: “I don’t want to do this exercise today, I need more time to get over my anxiety” was my attempt to avoid the anxiety, to fight against it instead of letting it be and focus on what I wanted to do. And it was giving myself time to ruminate over it, to come up with thousand unhelpful thoughts about what will ALWAYS get wrong in the future, and what I will NEVER be able to do…
What was my plan to get over the anxiety? What was I trying to do to get over it? I didn’t really have a concrete plan, so there was no DOING to help myself. In fact, looking at the place where I had fallen over kept reminding me of it, and kept triggering that spiral of negative thoughts.
What did my coach do by pushing me gently to do the exercise again and giving me a few technical tips? She created early on a new positive experience in my body and a new (positive) association with the same image of the ice rink. She also interrupted me strengthening the negative association, as I didn’t spend any time anymore re-creating the fall in my head and reinforcing the anxiety through my unhelpful thoughts. She also did a brilliant mindfulness exercise with me: she helped me “out of my head” and into the present moment – I had to focus my attention again on my body coordination instead of on that catastrophising.
What else did she do by holding my hand on my first run of the exercise and letting go of it afterwards? She reinstated my self-confidence. With this I carried on practicing outside the lesson too, and reinforcing on my own the positive association. In a few days the association between the ice rink, that particular exercise and the fall stopped being the first thing coming to my mind.
I still remember that fall en get anxious on ice sometimes– and this is important and helpful too. But everything I now link with that fall is the lesson not to skate too close to the barrier and to bend my knees for good stability. Imagine I would have somehow magically lost my capacity to feel anxious: Would I still have now my legs, my back, my head, my life? How many injuries I would have acquired through reckless skating?
I hear often clients saying that they need time to prepare facing again an anxiety-triggering situation. When I hear this I try to help them distinguish between the real and useful preparation and the unhelpful getting sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts holding them back. And I help them understand that both extremes: frozen in anxiety and panic and the hypothetic state where you don’t feel any anxiety at all are both unhealthy. Making friends with your anxiety is using it as a barometer to navigate safely whatever you want to do.