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Michaele Potvin Michaele Potvin
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Trust is a key element of health

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When people seek treatment to alleviate anxiety symptoms, therapists often apply a series of gradual exposure exercises to assist their client in gradually opening themselves to situations which precipitate the symptoms. During these experiences, they gain confidence in their skills we teach and they begin to recognize that when exposed to stress, the symptoms of anxiety subside on their own simply by them being present as opposed to avoiding the feared situation. They regain a sense of self-efficacy, of trust that they themselves can effectively cope with the discomfort.

Merriam Webster defines trust as a noun: 1) assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something; 2) dependence on something future or contingent, hope and reliance. Merriam makes trust sound like a leap of faith. No wonder trust can be so frightening for some people.

To some, trust, much like bravery, is something that often comes in the face of fear and discomfort. It is common for someone seeking therapy for treatment of depression or anxiety to also present with concerns about trust. One reason trust is a common theme in therapy is that humans have a built-in negativity bias. This bias can be difficult to avoid, and challenging to redirect. It often takes more energy to redirect one’s thinking from negative to positive than from positive to negative. Indeed, the human brain is hardwired to hold on to the negative experiences. It only takes one violation of trust to create mistrust. Mistrust can grow like a weed over time to the point that one lives by the premise, mistrust until proven otherwise. What a lonely place to be.

When our trust is violated we subconsciously seek to avoid a repeat situation. To avoid getting hurt, or embarrassed, or to avoid the consequences of these feelings like low self-esteem, fear of commitment, jealousy and fear of abandonment, we intuitively develop avoidance behaviors. We avoid people, places and situations which we predict have a high likelihood or failure. Avoidance strengthens the feared stimulus because we feel a sense of relief when we do it. However slight, or subconscious, this relief teaches us we made the “right” decision.

Perhaps it is best to consider trust as a verb—something one wakes up with each day and decides to do. Trust should be an active choice like putting on a pair of shoes or deciding what to have for breakfast. We need to make a conscious decision to choose trust over mistrust. A common repercussion of mistrust is fear and then avoidance. Being mistrustful and anxious limits our abilities, and life experiences.

Consider this as a simple exercise. What are some common, but specific, sources of mistrust for you? Write them down. As a result of these sources of mistrust, create a list of people, places and experiences you typically avoid. For example - do you avoid making dinner dates with several friends or avoid applying for a job because of mistrust? Now consider the impact of this avoidance. Are there consequences to you personally because of your avoidance? Does it impact your career opportunities, your joy, your development of healthy relationships with others? If you answered “yes,” perhaps re-evaluating your sources of mistrust for accuracy might be helpful. For example, is there objective and recent evidence that mistrust is warranted, or is your mistrust based upon your experiences years ago? Are you experiencing the “once bitten, twice shy” phenomenon?

Finally, based on what you know about your mistrust, on a 0-10 scale low to high, how important is it for you to learn to trust more, or again? Next, on the same scale, how confident are you that you could do it, that you could re-learn to trust? Commonly, people will respond with relatively high ratings for the first question, and lower ratings for the second. They know it is important to adjust, but they lack the self-confidence to do so. In these circumstances, it can be helpful to seek help from others. Sometimes and objective ear, support and encouragement can make the difference between recognizing your lack of trust is a problem, and taking steps to resolve it. As always, professional help is also available. Several sessions with a skilled therapist can have a substantial and lasting benefit.

(Michaele Potvin, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who provides therapy to clients at Restorative Health.)

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