How to Avoid Avoiding: Using Exposure Therapy to Improve Your English
Note: The content of this blog is not intended to treat or diagnose any medical or psychological problem. This personal story is about my history with anxiety and how you can apply exposure therapy to overcome fears of speaking English in new situations. Please seek a medical professional if you need advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Amid the pandemic I found myself getting lightheaded while driving on the freeway. I was having some health challenges - acid reflux and chronic dry eye that left me with occasional blurred vision, so I initially attributed this spaciness to something eye-related.
I came up with coping strategies that were mildly effective: driving slowly in the right lane so I could easily exit and allowing extra time to take side roads. But more uncomfortable physical sensations joined the party. On each drive, my knuckles gripped the steering wheel intensely, my breaths were shallow, and I felt like I was trapped in my lane with no way to escape. I started worrying about when I would need to drive next. My fear of driving became a constant source of worry.
Then I began to have more anxiety throughout my day. I avoided this feeling by pouring my heart into work. When I taught online I was able to focus on my passion for teaching English, and I got a break from the anxiety. I was grateful for this. However, I started overworking because teaching was such an effective escape from everything else. This eventually led to burnout.
I got tired of it, so I reached out to a therapist and joined an anxiety support group. In my first class I learned about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I had struggled with anxiety at different points in my life, but this was the first time I decided to take more control. I learned that GAD is a fear disorder.
“Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.” - Mayo Clinic
I thought back to my childhood and reflected on how long I had lived with anxiety without awareness of it.
“You may avoid places or situations to prevent these feelings.” - Mayo Clinic
I wasn’t aware that I had been avoiding other things - even small things like returning emails, starting new hobbies out of my comfort zone, and taking steps in my business that scared me. Driving had become a huge problem, but I wondered what the impact was of avoiding these small things too.
I started avoiding driving altogether and asked my boyfriend to take me places. I thought that taking a break from the road would be a quick fix. But my attempt to avoid discomfort backfired. The joke was on me. I started having panic attacks every time I got in the car with someone else driving! Carl Jung once said, “What you resist persists”, and I believe he was right.
How do we become confident?
The group leader of my anxiety class shared this graph on Zoom to a class of sixty plus anxious people during the pandemic. What stood out to me is how quickly you can teach your brain to recognize a situation as “scary”. Each time you avoid something out of fear, the fear increases.
Image © Psychology Tools Limited. Used with permission.
I think about this graph now when fear is screaming at me to say “no” to a new situation. I understand the results of avoidant behavior. Saying “yes” to new situations before I develop a fear response has helped me tremendously. I think about how I can “expose” myself to new things every day now.
But it’s really hard when you have already trained your brain to be afraid of something. It’s hard to get back to normal. However, using exposure therapy helped me go from having panic attacks on the freeway to driving like my normal happy self on the freeway. (I actually used to love driving!) If I can do this, I know that you can use exposure therapy in small ways to help you stop avoiding things.
So what is exposure therapy and what does it have to do with language learning?
“Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that was developed to help people confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities or situations. Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear become even worse. In such situations, a psychologist might recommend a program of exposure therapy in order to help break the pattern of avoidance and fear. - apa.org
I believe that exposure therapy can also be applied to overcoming a fear of speaking in a foreign language in new situations. If you get more in the mindset of being willing to be in a situation before you teach your brain that it is negative, you will habituate to this situation and it won’t become, well… like my driving situation on the freeway!
Okay…Maybe you are thinking that you don’t avoid situations at all. I’d like to challenge you to get curious and reflect on your behaviors. I’ve found that most people are avoiding something whether they are aware of it or not. When they start paying more attention, they usually find something… and they haven’t been aware of how it has held them back. It could be small for you and it could be preventing you from making progress in English.
Let’s find out if there is something holding you back.
What are you avoiding? Do you relate to any of these situations or is there something else you are avoiding doing in English?
Here is a list of situations that I’ve seen students avoid:
Starting conversations with other parents in English.
Starting conversations with a store clerk at the grocery store.
Starting or making progress in getting their first job in English.
Taking many English lessons per week while avoiding situations where they need to “use” English in real life.
Putting off signing up for classes in English, new hobbies, or things that are out of their comfort zone.
Making American friends.
Why should you take risks when they feel uncomfortable? Why does this matter so much in language learning?
I think that there is a bigger risk of missing out on an opportunity that will help you grow and learn more. To get better at speaking a language, we need to be in real conversational situations. We can prepare for these conversations and learn grammar in a lesson with a teacher, but we also need real experience to understand our weaknesses and strengths.
We also miss out on a huge opportunity to build confidence when we avoid risks. Confidence is about our belief in our abilities and about trusting ourselves. When we try something new, we get the chance to see how successful we can be or how brave we can be. We start to see ourselves differently, and this is a great feeling. I believe that this confidence to try new things and speak to more people is what will really get you unstuck.
Try asking yourself these questions. “Why is it worth it to me to get out of my comfort zone even when it’s uncomfortable and scary? What will I miss out on?” I recommend writing down why it matters to you. When you avoid things, you become more passive, letting life happen to you rather than taking steps forward.
Here are some tips for how you can use exposure therapy to get out of your comfort zone to improve your speaking.
Start by setting actionable goals
Make a list of all of the things you want to stop avoiding in English. Do you want to start conversations with other moms at your kid’s school? Do you want to start the application process for your first job in English? Do you want to look for a language exchange partner or find a new English speaking friend on a friendship networking app? Write it down and make the goal specific. By what date would you like to do these things? In 1 month, 6 months, 1 year?
Choose one goal and imagine what you’d like to happen
I recommend choosing one goal on your list that scares you the least to start with. This will help you build confidence. For example, let’s say that you want to start conversations with strangers at the grocery store. Begin with limited exposure to this situation and then gradually increase it. Maybe start with simply imagining going to the grocery store and having a conversation with a friendly person. Play it out in your head and write down what you might say to this imaginary person - maybe the clerk at the checkout stand.
Use exposure therapy to take small steps forward
The next step might be going to the grocery store, shopping, and then simply saying hi to someone. If that seems doable (and maybe you need to do it a few times), you can expose yourself again but at a higher intensity. Next time you say hi to someone you might add a question. You continually do this until it feels easy. On a scale of 1 - 10, these exposures might be at a 1 or 2 level of intensity for you. Later you can work on actions that are at a level 4 or 5!
Try something that puts you a little more out of your comfort zone
If you are tackling starting conversations at the grocery store or around town, here are some tips from my business mentor Elena Mutunono.
“Try to find ways to start conversations. I know it may be scary for some people, especially if it's not something you'd do in your culture, so what helped me is to have a couple of ready-made questions or comments like: How old is your child/dog? Do you know where I can get...? Looks like you enjoy novels (in the library or a bookstore). Looks like you've got a cart full of healthy veggies (at a grocery store). Don't be afraid when people don't respond -- the point is to start a conversation, to make it feel less awkward. For instance, I used the line about veggies last week at a grocery store, and the person in front of me totally froze. #awkward. But the cashier was chatty, so that worked.” - Elena Mutonono
I love this suggestion from her as well about how to reflect on your experience and normalize it.
“It may help to have a journal where you write down the questions you asked or the interactions you had with people at the store or in the library. Writing things down is a good way to reinforce your practice habit and to get more comfortable speaking. It may be helpful to write down funny stories and mistakes you made. It helps you normalize them and not let them prevent you from taking risks and talking to people.” - Elena Mutonono
As you take action, I think you’ll start seeing what is possible for you when you start taking small steps in the direction of the things that scare you the most. I've seen time and time again that students who actively work on getting out of their comfort zone are able to do more in English sooner and build confidence faster no matter what level they are at.
Here is my last tip for you. Support yourself while you do the scary things.
I think it’s important to think about how you will be nice to yourself when you are doing uncomfortable things. How will you feel safe and supported? Maybe you’ll need to set up some time for yourself to recover. Maybe you’ll need to vent to a friend in your first language or ask your teacher for some encouraging words. Remind yourself that you’ll feel more comfortable the more you do it.
I hope you are starting to see the importance of taking small risks to help you get unstuck in English.
So what are you waiting for? What small steps are you going to take this week to get out of your comfort zone?