Habituation is the natural process our bodies are equipped with that allows us to cope with new situations. You probably have experienced habituation, but may not have had a name to give it. When we jump into a pool of water it takes a few minutes for our bodies to feel comfortable as it is habituating to the temperature. This is the same process used when our eyes adjust going from a bright room to a dark room. In addition to water temperature and light, our bodies automatically habituate to different levels of anxiety.
I recently experienced the benefits of habituation. This summer I began participating in dressage horse shows on my horse, Sonic. As I prepared for my first show of the season I made sure I knew the movements or “tests.” I tried visualizing each test in my head and used the different relaxation techniques I suggest my clients use when they are preparing for an anxiety provoking situation. As I practiced in the warm up ring my heart started pounding and my breathing got fast. I tried controlled breathing, relaxation, positive self talk and distraction to deal with my anxiety. All of these techniques helped me calm me down a little, but when it was my turn in the show ring I was still wound too tight. Needless to say I didn’t place well. A few weeks later, I was in the show ring again. I used the same techniques, but because I had showed recently I was much calmer and performed a lot better. I had habituated to showing. This is the magic of habituation. The more you do something, the easier it gets!.
A few important facts about anxiety and habituation:
1. Anxiety is transient and passes.
2. Avoidance strengthens anxiety. If I had avoided showing for a few months the next time I showed my anxiety would most likely have been higher. My avoidance would have made my anxiety worse.
3. Exposure weakens anxiety. By showing again, my anxiety was less than the time before.
4. Habituation is natural and automatic.
5.Exposure is necessary for habituation. The more you experience something, the easier it gets.