Anxiety Shorts: Habituation

Have you ever been in a situation where it seemed scary at first, but got easier over time? That’s called “habituation.”

I’m sitting on the bus, and my phone starts ringing. My wife is calling. I used to just ignore it and text: “I’m on the bus, what’s up?” I didn’t like picking up the phone because I didn’t want people to hear my conversation and I felt like I would be annoying to others. Occasionally I would talk, but I didn’t like doing it. I spoke in a whisper and kept the conversation extremely short. When I tried speaking louder and answering the phone more often it got easier, and now I’m quite happy to speak on the bus. In psychological terms I habituated to my anxiety so that it doesn’t bother me anymore.

When you feel anxious about something, and you face that situation, your anxiety can habituate quickly. You can learn to drive again, face spiders, or speak in public!

How Does Habituation Happen?

Your body is anxious because it perceives an anticipated threat. Like people judging you on the bus for talking too loudly! If you face the situation you learn the “real threat.” If the real threat is low, then your brain learns that it’s safer than you thought, or that you can cope with it. Your brain, being the smart thing it is, then recalibrates and next time you’re in the same situation it remembers what happened and stops you from being so anxious.

It’s Like Learning To Ride A Bike

Sometimes, I liken this to learning to ride a bike. On the first attempt, your anxiety might be high and it’s more of a challenge. If you repeat it though, it gets a little easier and you probably even start to do riskier things like riding faster. On the 10th time you try, it may be second nature to you and creates no anxiety whatsoever. This is all just a fancy way of explaining how your body habituates to things that you’re afraid of facing if you face them (and they are not a high risk of danger!).

bike_skills

Limitations of Habituation

The habituation explanation is actually an older and slightly outdated model of understanding the phenomenon of people finding anxiety situations easier the more they face them. It has its limitations. For example, many people don’t habituate while facing a situation, meaning their anxiety doesn’t always decrease while staying with the fearful situation. In addition, people spontaneously sometimes get anxious about situations that they have previously habituated to. However, despite these issues it’s still a good basic explanation for understanding how people recover from anxiety. If you want a more technical discussion of the newer model of understanding anxiety, the inhibitory learning model, see my in depth article on the topic.

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