Rethinking anxiety: Learning to face fear | Dawn Huebner | TEDxAmoskeagMillyardWomen
Articles,  Blog

Rethinking anxiety: Learning to face fear | Dawn Huebner | TEDxAmoskeagMillyardWomen

Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Robert Deliman A little anxiety is a good thing. I kept telling myself
that in the lead-up to today, but a little anxiety is good. It sharpens our senses
and gets us ready to take on challenges. A lot of anxiety is another story, it’s a hindrance rather than a help. A lot of anxiety makes it difficult
to take productive action, it sets off a primitive response
deep in our brains, the old fight-or-flight response which actually has
a third part: freeze. All three are protective mechanisms with important evolutionary advantages
when we’re faced with danger, but anxieties about perceived danger are very different from actual danger, and in the case of anxiety, fighting, fleeing, and freezing
are all problematic causing us pain, preventing us
from moving forward, making our world small. I became a psychologist in 1987 and had my first and only child
several years later. Before you too get too concerned
for him, “Poor kid! A psychologist mom who gets up and talks
about him on a TEDx stage” (Laughter) please know he’s an adult now, and he’s given me permission
to tell this story. Anyway, when he was little,
Eli was anxious. He was afraid of the scary characters, and Disney movies, and haircuts,
and shots, and splinters, and bees, normal-seeming fears
although there were quite a few of them. Initially, we did what most parents do we reassured him, and when that didn’t work, we helped him avoid
the things he was afraid of: we stopped going to movies,
we let his hair get shaggy, we stayed away from flowers –
because of bees – and rough wood because of splinters, but like some weird monster, his level of fear continued to grow. He started panicking
whenever he needed to go outside afraid he might encounter a bee, and it became difficult for him
to touch anything made of wood. Life went as as it does,
and Eli became fascinated by history. When he was about 10, we decided
to go to Fort Ticonderoga, a wooden fort with plenty
of splinter potential. We did lots of planning: he would wear shoes,
close-toed shoes, long sleeve shirt, long pants,
no exposed skin. We promised him he wouldn’t need
to touch anything, and he was actually really excited to go. The day we went was
a beautiful 90-degree day. We tramped around the fort for hours
until we were exhausted. My husband and I plopped down
on a bench to rest – a wooden bench – a wooden bench, Eli absolutely could not sit on
nor could he move himself close enough to sit on one of our laps
because he still might touch the bench. He couldn’t sit on the floor of the fort because it was a wooden floor or leaned against a wall – a wooden wall – so he stood; rivers of sweat
running down his face, utterly exhausted,
utterly defeated by his fears. He stood because there was
nothing else he could do. He stood, and he sobbed. It seems obvious in retrospect
that we let things go too far, but somehow, the view
from inside was different. We didn’t realize how bad things had gotten,
how debilitating his fears had become not until that moment,
that pivotal moment, when it became crystal clear
that we needed help. I brought Eli to a therapist who quickly deduced he’s 10 years old; he’s afraid of splinters, shots, and bees; long, sharp objects that poke. Clearly, this was a fear of penetration related to – get ready
for Freud-Oedipal issues, his wish to overthrow his father
to have possession of me. (Laughter) I set there listening
to this well-respected psychologist thinking how can this possibly help us, and the answer was it couldn’t. So I went on a quest determined to find a way to help my son. I landed on cognitive behavioral therapy
also known as CBT, an approach to treatment
based on the premise that we all have an inner triangle based on our thoughts,
our feelings, and our actions. The idea is that these
are all interrelated: our thoughts influence our feelings, thoughts and feelings drive our actions, actions link back to what we think
and believe, and so on. So the way to change a problematic
feeling like paralyzing anxiety is to change the associated
thoughts and actions. That made sense, and it was specific,
it give us something to work on rather than continuing to help him
avoid the things he was afraid of. We needed Eli to change
what he was doing, to pay attention
to the action part of the triangle. We needed him to go to the movies,
go outside, touch wood, to see that he could do
these things without getting hurt. Changing what he was doing
would help change what he was thinking, and his feelings would change from there. We decided to start with bees and went on a campaign
to get Eli to go outside. He’s maybe 11 at this point, and it isn’t much of a stretch to say
that his life revolved around Legos: big sets, complicated castles,
and forts, and islands, and ships. He would do just about anything
for money for Legos. You can probably guess
where this is going: I bribed him. “Just go outside,” I said,
“You’re not going to get stung. And if you do, I’ll give you ten dollars.” I’m going to pause the story for a moment. (Laughter) I made two major mistakes
with that intervention: the first was telling him,
in a definitive way, he wasn’t going to get stung. How crazy is that? How could I possibly know
whether or not he gets stung? What I should have told him
was that a sting was unlikely which would have been
more accurate and also more useful because an important part
of overcoming anxiety is learning to take a chance, to take action
even though you feel unsure, to be nervous and do something anyway. My other mistake was offering a reward
for the bad thing happening. What I should have been rewarding was the part of the CBT triangle
I wanted him to be paying attention to: the action I should have rewarded his going outside. I could have bought the Lego set he wanted and given him a single piece
every time he went out. That would have been rewarding his bravery, his willingness
to face his fear, step into the uncertainty
not the bee sting. But I didn’t know then what I know now
so I did the wrong thing although it accomplished something
important: got him to go outside. My husband was on the same page,
dangling the same carrot, a bigger carrot. “If you go outside,” he said,
“and get stung, I’ll give you 20 dollars.” (Laughter) So, Eli went outside
with great trepidation but fueled
by the possibility of a pay-off, and he did get stung, something like five minutes
after we told him he wouldn’t. He handled the sting itself pretty well,
which is typically how it goes. The possibility of a bad thing
is often worse than the actual bad thing, and he was delighted
that we now had to fork over 30 dollars; that was half a Lego ship back then, money well spent
as far as we were concerned because he saw
that he could survive the sting. He went outside more willingly after that,
nervous but liking the financial gain, and gradually, his fears abated. It wasn’t the perfect cure although he did get over
his fear of long, sharp objects that poked enough to take up fencing (Laughter) which was enough to propel me further
into CBT as a theoretical orientation. I learned more about how to use cognitive behavioral strategies
without the bribes, and it transformed the way
I worked with children, anxious children,
who got better, so much better that I decided to write a self-help book
to bring these skills to a wider audience. My first book was for anxious kids on
what to do when you worry too much, and it took off. Sales were higher
than my publisher and I ever anticipated, and then I wrote
another book, and another, all teaching cognitive behavioral
strategies directly to children empowering them to help themselves. I started being contacted
by the national media, and by parenting groups,
and professional groups wanting me to come speak, but oddly enough, I was never available. The timing of a conference
wasn’t quite right, I had other plans,
couldn’t take time off from my practice. These were the excuses I gave
one after another as I turned down
invitation after invitation, “I’m sorry. I just can’t make it.” I turned down public speaking invitations
for two years. I was aware at some level
of what I was doing. I knew I was afraid
I would fall flat, get tongue-tied, not be interesting enough or funny enough. I told myself that public speaking
just wasn’t my thing, and that that was OK. But eventually, the irony of this particular fear
jumped up and slapped me in the face. (Laughter) Here I was: a psychologist
with a best-selling book about anxiety, a national expert
on the treatment of anxiety; anxiety – the very thing
that was keeping me from standing up and talking about it, I’d like to be able to tell you
my first thought was, “Great, this will be an opportunity to practice all those skills
I’ve been teaching,” but I’d be lying. (Laughter) My first thought was, “If I want to be able
to face myself in the mirror, I need to do something about this.” One of the primary
cognitive behavioral interventions for dealing with anxiety is exposure with the aim of desensitizing
to whatever we’re afraid of. Let’s imagine we’re putting
together a tool box; exposure’s our first tool. How does it work? Well, think about jumping
into a swimming pool; it’s cold, but if you stay in the water,
start swimming, or playing, or whatever, pretty soon it feels fine;
you’ve desensitized. The water’s just as cold as it was
when you first jumped in, but you don’t notice the cold anymore,
you’ve gotten used to it. One version of this exposure technique
is called flooding, it’s like exposure on steroids, the literal equivalent
of jumping into a cold pool, all at once, “Just deal with it.” Afraid of spiders?
Plunge your hand into a jar of them. Afraid of germs? Go to a pediatrician’s office,
touch all the toys in the waiting room, rub your hands on your face. The technique actually works
if you can get yourself to do it, but flooding isn’t the way
most people choose to face their fears. It’s kind of harsh. Fortunately, there’s
another version of exposure, a more gradual method, the equivalent of slowly
lowering yourself into the pool, taking one step in
and letting your feet get used to it, and then taking another step and another. It was this gradual exposure, this step-by-step method
that I decided to use. I set up a hierarchy for myself
and started small: toes in the water stuff,
raising my hand at conferences, commenting during group meetings, eventually agreeing
to give a brief talk to a smaller group, writing the whole thing out,
holding my script, reading it verbatim, I forced myself to look up –
that was a triumph – and slowly, painstakingly but doggedly I made my way through
this hierarchy of challenges: bigger groups, letting go of the script, culminating in this. (Applause) So there’s hope not just for me but for all of us because all of us are wired to shrink away from things
that might hurt us. That’s a good thing – shrinking away from things
that might hurt us – as long as we’re accurate
in our assessment of what’s going to hurt us
and how serious the harm will be. But all too often, something goes wrong. We lose the ability to gauge risk, and we begin to assume
that if we’re afraid, we must be in danger even when we aren’t. Fortunately, there’s another tool
we can put in the toolbox: we can learn to recognize
and correct thinking mistakes. What’s a thinking mistake? It’s a misperception, a misperception that fuels anxiety. There are three common ones, the first: overestimating likelihood. Here’s what this one sounds like, “If a bad thing could happen,
it will happen, I know it, and even though it hasn’t happened yet,
I’m pretty sure it will, and anyway, I’m not taking any chances,” which is closely linked
to thinking mistake number two: catastrophizing. “That bad thing that’s going to happen,
it’s not going to be a little bad thing. It’s going to be a big, bad thing,
an awful thing, the worst ever. I’ll never get through it.” That last part, that’s actually thinking mistake
number three: self-doubt. “The bad things going to happen
it’s going to be awful. I’ll never survive it, forget it,
I’m not going to do it.” Sound familiar? We all have these thoughts anticipating
the worst envisioning failure, underestimating our own resourcefulness,
telling ourselves we can’t cope, but our thoughts are just our thoughts not necessarily useful,
not necessarily true, and when we have a mistaken thought
we don’t need to hold on to it, we can toss it aside,
or better yet, correct it. It helps to externalize anxiety
which is actually our third tool. This one involves thinking
about your worry or fear like a pest, a little creature, whose sole aim is to make you feel scared. Every time you listen to that worry, every time you chase it
down it’s what-if rabbit hole and follow the rules it sets up, “Don’t go there,”
“Don’t touch that”, “Don’t do that,” every time you listen
to your worry, you’re feeding it, and every time you feed your worry,
you’re making it stronger. But when you don’t obey your worry, when you talk back to it,
challenge it, correct it, well, that’s a win for you. I’ve actually presented
the tools in reverse order so I’m going to flip them around to show you how a person
might use them – a child. Let’s imagine you’re eight years old, and you happen to be afraid
of going up stairs alone because there might be one of those scary dolls
that comes to life, or a ghost, or maybe you’re not sure
what you’re afraid of you just don’t want to go up there. But let’s say you’ve started
to learn this skill set, so first, you’d externalize your anxiety: tell yourself, “That’s my worry talking to me.
I don’t need to listen.” Second, you’d find incorrect
your thinking mistakes, “The chance of something
grabbing me is really small. I’ve been upstairs a ton of times,
and nothing bad’s happened.” third, you’d remember the pool;
you’ve got to get in. You can jump in –
just go upstairs all at once – or you can do it gradually: practice going up,
just a little bit at a time. If your mom can stand
at the bottom of the stairs while you go up and back down again, and then go up
and touch all the doorknobs and come back down, and then maybe your mom
can move further away while you go further up
and stay a bit longer. The goal, when it comes
to facing fear, is facing it not waiting to not feel afraid,
not accommodating the fear, not wishing it away
or even breathing it away. You have to do what you’re afraid of
while you’re afraid to see that your fear is a false alarm. It isn’t giving you useful information, and you don’t have to obey it. It’s a feeling, an uncomfortable feeling but a feeling, and like all feelings, it’s temporary. You, your kids, anyone
can learn to do this to start treating anxiety
like background noise, like a jackhammer blasting away outside. Sure you can hear it;
you can’t help but hear it. But you don’t have to wail against it
or remain frozen in place until it stops; just let it be, turn your attention
to something else. That’s where deep breathing comes in, and mindfulness exercises,
and various forms of distraction – these are additional tools best used not to avoid
the things we’re afraid of but to help us settle
our minds and our bodies so that inner alarm,
that false alarm can quiet itself allowing us to remember that being afraid is not
the same as being in danger. So we have a choice: we can follow our instincts, shrink away,
capitulate to our fears, and stay stuck or we can face our fears,
move towards them. Anxiety is like a Chinese finger trap, that woven tube you put your fingers into; and the more you pull against it,
the more stuck you get. The trick is you have to relax your hands, stop fighting against the tube,
move into it, and suddenly, you’re free. Thank you. (Applause)


  • No Name

    So I’m supposed to do what I’m afraid of when I’m afraid of it? I’m afraid of having more panic attacks and I’m afraid of the horrible feelings I get from them. What do I do then?

  • jude999

    I love everything about this except challenging the pest. I think its better to acknowledge that pest and then slowly letting it go. If you reject it, its like a beach ball that you try to push underwater, it pops back up. However, she does imply this by not fighting the fear. I would like to know how her son is doing.

  • N A

    This is a good start but doesn't really address a deeply ingrained fear, ie phobia.  Because true phobias that you try to expose to can/will cause terror and panic attacks which lead to panic disorder.  So sure, this is good for fears but not terror, not phobias, not panic attacks, not panic disorder.

  • seeker


  • John Bedson

    There are hundreds of these YouTube videos about anxiety and none of them deal with the subject of anxiety. Instead they talk about phobias, which have nothing to do with anxiety. Phobias are fears, not anxiety. I can't find one video that actually tells you how to deal with anxiety. For example you lose your job you have high anxiety because you are not going to be able to shelter and feed your family. Telling a person in that situation how to overcome phobias is of no help to them. They need to know how to control their anxiety so they can function to deal with their problems.

  • jo williams

    Bit concerned that by ignoring some fear feelings you could be ignoring or over riding your instinct. Tried to talk myself out of feeling fearful once but it was warning me of tangible danger

  • jo williams

    This highlights how some books written are not even based upon any experience someone has had. This is the second person who has said – I had written a book on the subject yet it had never happened to me? A guy had written a book on the subject of depression and then years later wrote another one saying he had just suffered from depression himself??? And these people put themselves forward as to helping people with mental illness???really?

  • Transformations Coaching & Hypnotherapy

    Fear will stop you in your tracks. Hypnosis can fast track overcoming these by working with unconscious link between the thoughts, feelings and the subsequent reactions

  • Brandon Zurvalec

    Thank you for sharing this video and providing a pragmatic method for handling anxiety. In my late-30s, I have realized that I HAVE to get better at this to get where I want to be in my life…and I WILL.

  • ruth_loveSNSD 9IRLS'6ENERAT10N



  • Will Parsons

    After watching only two minutes of Ms. Huebner's lecture on TEDX, it brought back a childhood memory – A memory that taught myself later on in life about not being scared…of the dark. When I would awaken to that bathroom calling at 2 or 4 am. Long after everyone was sound asleep and I had no one to watch over me while I was making that rather spooky journey half way through our darkened house to the bathroom.
    As a 6, 7, 8 and so on year old child, I was always scared something would jump out at me so I invented a friend… One who lived under my bed. One that no one else knew about and for that matter, could see. Soon after inventing my new friend and when I got that urge, I would slowly climb out of bed, call on my friend who nestled under my bed and to escort me to the bathroom.
    As years went on and I got older, the fear of walking through the dimly lit house wasn't so scary anymore.. It was time to let go of my childhood anxiety and say good by to my secret friend.

  • Serge Rivest

    Definitely child abuse to let it go to that stage. Put the kids god damn hand on wood so he realises splinters don’t kill anyone.

  • babygibbon 87

    I have health anxiety so can’t escape from the things that scare me most I.e. something happening within my own body. Any advice??

  • IT3210

    I love your voice. It's really soothing. Useful talk, well presented. I also had to desensitize myself to public speaking by joining Toastmasters.

  • Chuck Spidell

    Thank you for this. I've learned that fear leads to hesitation, which manifests into anxiety. So you have to stop it before it starts. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, walking (up steep hills), and listening to music can also help to reduce the feeling of panic.

  • Thoughts of Aryan

    What I think about this it's exposure like you have to fully open yourself what you afraid of and face what's gonna come and once you get used to it your life will be much easier

  • Daryl

    I've just realized that what I usually do is pushing away my thoughts because I'm afraid of them and I think it will stop it but my brain knows I'm afraid of something so I'm getting anxious anyway.

  • ANsOn II

    How bout GAD. The disorder is way worse. It just happens for no reason. Even if you talk yourself out of it you still feel it all over your body.

  • Kenny Ethan Jones

    This was incredible! great structure, simple to understand and providing actionable steps to take. Dawn is true representation of the standards of which every TED talk should go by. Thank you for your knowledge!

  • EMS 76

    What kind of clinical psychologist is still taking the Oedipus complex seriously? Of all the parts of Freudian psychology to retain, that's the least worthwhile.

  • piggyrush

    My anxiety revolves around future… I'm constantly worrying that I'll be alone and depressed for the rest of my life. I don't know how to overcome this… 😣😓

  • Paige Godfrey

    I've been dealing with debilitating anxiety for the past six months or so, and this 20 minute talk is definitively the best resource I've come across. I'm so pleased you were able to conquer your anxiety so you could help us with ours. Cheers 👏🏻

  • Intense Par

    Watched this video in the throws of a panic attack. Gave me some things to think about and helped to settle me a bit.

  • linda southall

    Dawn's voice and demeanor are so soothing.Her eloquence and examples have given me such great ideas. Fantastic presentation ! I could listen to you all day. Your patients are so fortunate to have your gentle help. Thak you !

  • Dempsey Rollo

    I wish my anxiety was fear of needles or even public speaking. I have anxiety about women. I was not born with this, but acquired it by constant rejections and losing. You and all other so-called experts provide nothing. Facing my fear and doing public speaking can be done. However, I can't force a woman to give me a chance!

  • Kregg Kittelson

    Wrong!! My friend had a panic atttack.. His blood preasure got to high.. He had a aneurysm and he had a massive stroke and lost his eye

  • Monica C.R.

    I have mild social anxiety, I can see how exposure could eventually help me to feel more confortable, however if I were to put my hand in a jar with roaches, I’d probably develop PTSD, I can’t even think about it 😅

  • shadesoina

    Okay this is great, but not so great if you anxiety is fuelled by fears of loosing someone. you can't just say hey can you pretend to loose me and get upset just so i can get over my anxeity lol. i wished someone would address those kinds of anxiety issues where it involves not just yourself but the fear of hurting others.

  • rob dog

    There is not one documentary or talk on YouTube about real anxiety caused by real reasons…. and how to deal with it …..

  • L Bulsing

    Hi, i’m Laura. I am a 14 year old girl from the Netherlands.
    Lately I've been struggling with depression and anxiety. I am becoming obsessed with facts and a lot of these facts are about death. I am very smart and I have an fotographic memory so I don’t really forget thinks. My mom thinks my feeling are fading away because of all these facts. I still do have feeling, but I never that about them. She also thinks, because I read so much, I don’t enjoy life anymore. This is very true. I think that that is the reason why I’m obsessed with the death. I can stare at a wall for hours and just think about life. My mom thinks this is weird. She wants me to go to an psychologist. Do you guys think that is a good solition? Does a psychologist reslly help?

    If you take the time to reply to me, thank you deerly!

    Also, I’m sorry for the grammar, hope you’ll understand it.

  • avocado pit

    I was pathetically scared of ants (something happened to me in childhood) till the age of 13-14 when I got accidentally bitten by 2 of them and it didn't hurt much. I stopped being afraid of them

  • craftybadass

    This is quite possibly the best explanation of Anxiety that I've encountered to date. Well done in distilling it down and sharing so much of your own experiences. This hit home for me and was like looking in the mirror. You are my spiritual animal! Thanks for your vulnerability!

  • decorumgun

    I had such bad social anxiety. Agoraphobia. To escape an abusive relationship I moved to New Orleans, with no car. It was so hard to do, to use the public transportation, alone in a city where I had no friends. That helped so much, though. Exposure is a good thing. My anxiety about a lot of different situations was just worn down over time. I still have issues but I am much more functional ;P

  • so in theory, if i practice all the things discussed in this video, i will be able to try any new thing? and a little anxiety is okay? is it mostly just acceptance and exposure?

  • Crista McGrath

    Thank you! You’re presentation was AMAZING!! So helpful! I’m so happy you shared your personal experience with anxiety and you’re way through. ✨

  • ty durden

    the kid probably purposely went outside to get stung, I mean, if someone offered me 30 bucks to get stung I'd go out and find a bee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *