A lot of people are afraid of heights, and a fear of spiders seems to be pretty common too. But by and large mostly people share different fears and anxieties meaning that there’s always someone around who can safely remove the spider from the room, or who can get the ball down from the roof.
Imagine though if there was a fear that everyone shared. What would we do then?
Well actually we don’t have to imagine. According to the science there is in fact at least one fear that is shared by all of mankind and it’s something that probably affects you in one way or another every single day.
What Is Approach Avoidance?
The fear is what is known as ‘approach avoidance’, which is essentially the ‘fear of things getting closer’. This is a phobia with obvious roots in our evolutionary history: when we were still living in the wild things getting closer would often be cause for concern whether that was a predator closing ground on us, or whether it was a fire encroaching on the land where we were sleeping. Often the brain wouldn’t have time to work out precisely what things were that were heading towards us, and in fact we often just wouldn’t be able to work them out at all. As such we evolved instead to ‘default’ to a state of fear when anything started getting closer.
Today we’re much better equipped to deal with most of the types of danger that would get closer in this way (particularly things getting closer slowly), and yet it appears that we all still have some kind of vestigial remnant of this fear still present in our brains that causes us to move away when anything gets closer and to experience a rise in our heartbeat and blood pressure. This could even be part of what gives us our ‘personal space’.
How Approach Anxiety Affects Us
For the most part approach anxiety shouldn’t be too much of an issue, though it does explain why walking to work during the morning commute can sometimes be so stressful as it essentially involves hundreds of people moving directly towards us.
The bigger problem is that approach anxiety actually extends beyond simply the approach of physical things to the point where it also applies to images, sounds and even to abstract concepts. In one study it was found that watching a video of text gradually getting larger (as though it were getting closer) could actually be enough to cause a raise in blood pressure and heart rate. Likewise, sounds that sound as though they’re getting closer (by getting gradually louder) can also have the same effect.
In fact, even ‘events’ getting closer can make us stress out. If you have an impending event, then research suggests that this can cause you to get increasingly more anxious even when the event is something you’re looking forward to. Whether this is an example of approach anxiety alone though or whether it may also have to do with the perceived lack of time is debatable.
The point is, that we are programmed one way or another to respond with anxiety whenever anything appears to get closer.
What Can We Do About It?
Obviously nobody wants to feel constantly stressed out and so this is understandably an effect you might want to try and combat. What can you do to reduce your approach anxiety?
Unfortunately there isn’t much research available to answer that question, but there are some things you can do that logically could help you to feel a little more at ease. The first of these is to avoid incoming things wherever possible. If you have the option to commute into work half an hour later, or to take a less crowded route, then that might be good advice.
Better yet is simply being aware of what’s going on and trying to use this knowledge to relax yourself and take control of your emotions.
Finally, do consider this element when you’re in high-pressure situations. Want to feel a little more at ease while giving a speech? Then position yourself a little further back on the stage. Want to feel less stressed in your next interview? Then move the chair back slightly when you sit down. These small things may help to avoid alerting your brain to ‘incoming danger’ which could in turn help to keep you calmer and less stressed.