Posted by: Dr. Jennifer Fee | November 21, 2010

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Experiments are Essential for Overcoming Anxiety

It’s a rainy Sunday evening and I haven’t eaten much all day.  My chopsticks are poised to bite into my favorite type of Korean barbecue meat the second that it’s done cooking on the grill in the middle of our table.  I know that I may not get much (or any) during this first round of cooking though— it’s also the favorite of my two children and my friend’s two children.  I could use my size advantage to elbow them out-of-the-way, but how innappropriate would it be to steal food from four small hungry children?   I don’t mind being juvenile with my husband, but he has strategically seated himself directly in front of the grill.  The only person at the table who is not competition is my friend, the only native-born Korean person among us.  She sits back and patiently waits for the next type of meat because she turns her nose up at our favorite:  beef tongue! 

phote compliments of Joowon Roh (we don't understand why she doesn't like tongue!)

Beef tongue?  Yes, it is awesome.  And before you squeeze your noise and say “eeewwww!!”  let me say this:  it’s not our parents’ beef tongue.  As a child, my stomach would start to turn at the first sight in the store of the large, uncut, slab of meat that looked like, well a tongue! 

My grandmother would boil that tongue forever and a smell similar to something rotting in the garbage would permeate the house.  Then she would cut it into thick slices and although I did find the taste appealing, the thick, bumpy texture gave me a bad case the heebie-jeebies that lasted a long time!

So, why is it that beef tongue is now among my favorite cuts of meat?  The reason being that I was willing to try it again based on a belief that it would be completely different experience from my grandmother’s Pennsylvania Dutch style tongue cooking.  It’s also the favorite of my children and my friend’s children because they were willing to test the belief, “It might be good!”   Indeed it is:  Korean barbecue beef tongue is sliced super thin and grilled, so there’s no bad smell, no unpleasant texture.  Only an awesome taste is left! 

Our beliefs dictate much of our behavior because we act in accordance with what we expect to happen.  Many people who suffer from anxiety avoid certain situations because of a belief that something bad will result.  The list of outcomes that people fear is endless, so I’ll give you just a few examples:

“If I drive on the freeway, I’ll get anxious and not be able to get to an exit or pull off the freeway.”

“If I ask _______ out on a date, she will reject me and I will be humiliated.”

“I’d like to finish my degree, but I can’t speak in front of people.  I’m not good at it and it’s too embarrassing.”

In each situation something is being avoided:  asking people on dates, driving on the freeway, returning to school/speaking in front of other people.  In all three situations, people are very likely holding themselves back from what they want to experience, enjoy, or achieve in life. 

The first step to overcome avoidance is to consider an alternative belief. 

“Perhaps it’s not so dangerous to drive on the freeway”

“I may be able to learn how to give presentations without overwhelming anxiety” 

“Maybe I won’t be humiliated if ________ turns me down for a date.” 

Once we consider alternative beliefs (like mine was maybe barbecue beef tongue will be really, really good) then we are in a position to test out our new beliefs with experiments.   Experiments simply mean that we will try something different and/or new and see what happens.    

Now there’s  a few details about experiments that are essential to know.   I’ll be discussing these key points in future posts, but to give you a hint, it doesn’t mean that people afraid to drive on freeways should immediately  jump on the 405 (west coasters) or the Beltway (east coasters) during rush hour traffic.  It also doesn’t mean the person afraid of giving presentations should start by standing up in front of 200 people.  Even the guy wanting to ask the woman on a date might not start experimenting with that particular woman. 

Today I just want you to really get two points:  1. our beliefs directly influence our behavior.  2. If we consider new beliefs, we need a way to test them out (experiments).

There’s lots to discuss about both of those points, so please stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

–Dr. Jennifer Fee

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Responses

  1. […] proper setup of an experiment is essential to the experiment’s success.  In my last post, Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained:  Experiments are Essential for Overcoming Anxiety, I highlight the need to be willing to form new beliefs and test them out in order to overcome […]


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