Growing up on a small farm with horses, I heard the phrase “Get back on the horse” in both metaphorical and literal contexts.
My riding instructor told me to get back on the horse after a horse backed into a fence and reared with me on it, or when I fell off or was startled by a buck or a sudden gallop.
Getting back on the horse was essential because you never wanted to end your day afraid to ride the next day. Getting back on the horse meant to face your fear instantly before it had time to fester.
The phrase is often used when someone has a bad experience. “Get back on the horse,” we’re told. Face the fear now, and it will be easier next time.
I used to avoid a lot of things after a bad experience, like restaurants or slumber parties or public transportation. I have avoided places, thoughts, and even foods that I believed would trigger anxiety. I believed that identifying my anxiety triggers was about avoiding them rather than acknowledging them so that I would be more prepared when I encountered them.
One of the most important lessons I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy was that avoidance increased fear. We may think avoiding triggers will bring us comfort, and it may for a time, but it will eventually only make our fear worse.
Today, people like to give “trigger” warnings before speeches, books, or films. I am not opposed to this. I think it can be helpful to let people know when something may be uncomfortable for them so that they can be prepared. Sometimes, especially when it comes to traumatic experiences, it is healthy to step away.
But cognitive behavioral therapy* suggests that anxiety triggers aren’t the problem; our reaction to them is the problem. It is good to acknowledge and understand our triggers, but not so that we can avoid them. When we avoid our triggers, we give them power. We are telling them that they are stronger than us. That’s why much of therapy is about facing triggers. When we confront them, we weaken them.
When my mom was learning how to train horses, she watched videos on natural horsemanship that addressed the fears people can have towards horses. I remember one video that centered on the guideline to move closer and stay longer. The instructor said that to face any fear, one had to incrementally move closer to that fear and stay with it longer.
This practice, we realized, could apply to many things. When I started college, for instance, I inadvertently practiced this. I started off going to classes. After awhile, I grew comfortable enough to stay longer and go to the cafeteria. Then I stayed even longer to hang out with friends. Then, finally, I moved onto campus. I visited home regularly, then less regularly as I became more and more comfortable.
This is what avoiding avoidance is about. It’s not about running head-on towards the fear with no way out. We can simply practice moving a little closer and staying a little longer. Maybe we start off by giving ourselves an easy escape route. Then the next time, we make it a little harder, then a little harder again.
Obviously, there are some fears and triggers that cannot be faced this way. But when I learned that fear could be chipped away with work and time, I realized that so many of my fears didn’t have to be with me permanently. I didn’t have to live with them forever but could actively address them.
Most importantly, I learned that the fear is the real issue and not the “things.” We aren’t battling against anything but our own minds. That idea used to scare me, but now I see it in the same way I see recovering from an injury anywhere in the body. You and I may be injured by fear, but our minds, thankfully, are pliable. We can change our thoughts.
*If you are interested in learning more about cognitive behavioral therapy, I highly recommend The Anti-Anxiety Workbook by Peter J. Norton, which was assigned to me by my therapist. I am also not an expert, and I highly recommend therapy for everyone.