Deciphering the Difference Between Discomfort and Danger
Although the sound of “discomfort” and “danger” seem worlds apart, there’s a fine line between the two, especially for those dealing with anxiety. Fear, along with worry, is at the root of anxiety but fear doesn’t always mean danger. It might cause discomfort but it’s not life-threatening. However, the two may cause similar physical responses, biological responses, and thoughts.
It’s important to understand the differences between discomfort and danger. The biggest one being that danger should be avoided for safety reasons. Of course, we never want to put ourselves or anyone else in a dangerous situation. Discomfort, on the other hand, should be noticed and tolerated. It’s something we cannot, and should not, avoid. It can be scary to go outside of our comfort zone, but it’s good for us every once in a while.
We tend to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s confronting a co-worker or showing up alone at a social gathering, it takes extra effort to push outside our comfort zone. So more often than not, we avoid those situations, and feel temporarily relieved. However, when we continue to avoid, we don’t get the opportunity to tolerate discomfort. The longer we do this, those things we avoid become even scarier. You forget what it’s like to feel uncomfortable, so when the time comes to face your fears, it’s overwhelming. To be proactive with your discomfort, take note of the things in life that make you uncomfortable. Don’t feel like you have to face them all at once, but don’t continue to avoid them either. Take things one step at a time. The first step is to notice and listen to your body. Be mindful of your response to these situations. And know that just because they create discomfort, they are not necessarily dangerous.
The next step would be to consider something like Exposure Therapy. This is a program where psychologists “create a safe environment in which to ‘expose’ individuals to the things they fear and avoid.” Exposing someone to their fears in a systematic way is proven to help ease the fear, decrease avoidance, and increase your ability to tolerate discomfort. The goal here is to get you more comfortable with discomfort, and not confuse it with danger. Some examples of Exposure Therapy include:
In Vivo Exposure: directly facing your fear in real life
Imaginal Exposure: using visualization techniques and imagery to confront your fears
Virtual Reality Exposure: can be used when In Vivo Exposure isn’t an option, like for those who are afraid of flying, or as a step toward doing exposure in real life.
Interoceptive exposure: purposefully bringing on physiological sensations that cause discomfort but aren’t dangerous. For example, running in place to elevate your heart rate to prove that the similar sensation in panic attacks is not dangerous.
In addition to exposure therapy, mindfulness practice, something we’re big proponents of here at Mindwell, can be helpful. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Practicing mindfulness can help you gain a better understanding of yourself and your fears. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to cope more effectively with stressful situations and better discern if a situation is truly dangerous. Whether you practice mindfulness through meditation, therapy or a set program, mindfulness is a strong tool that’s beneficial for anything that life throws at you.
Once you’ve become more aware of your emotions, it’s time to take notice of your body’s physical responses. In a situation that causes discomfort, are your muscles tense? Is your heart rate elevated? Simply noticing your body’s response (without judgment) will increase your level of awareness, and may help decrease anxiety about these symptoms being dangerous. If these body changes are happening in the context of a panic attack, it is important to know that a panic attack, while very uncomfortable, is not inherently dangerous. Mindfully noticing the physical symptoms without judgment will help your ride out the panic attack more effectively.
One way to ease these physical responses to fear is to practice diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “abdominal breathing” or “belly breathing.” This type of deep breathing focuses on the diaphragm and helps you control each breath. If you’re new to this type of breathing, it’s best to try it laying down with your knees bent. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. With each inhale and exhale, only your belly should be moving. When you inhale, your stomach moves out, and when you exhale your stomach moves in. The hand on your chest should remain still. Shifting your focus onto something like the breath can actually keep your intense physical responses in check. You can use our recording of diaphragmatic breathing to try it out!
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another way to manage your physical responses. This is done by tensing up then relaxing the muscle groups, one at a time and in a specific order. This is typically done starting with the lower extremities and moving all the way up to the head. Ideally, this would be done in a quiet place with no distractions. This type of exercise is especially ideal for those who respond to discomfort with physical tension.
You can find several helpful books on our resources page to supplement therapy as well. If you’re interested in speaking with a professional, our clinicians are here to help. Please contact Rebecca Berger today.
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