One of the top issues people come to me to address is fear and anxiety. In this ever-changing world, there have never been more reasons to feel afraid. Sure, we don't have to fight woolly mammoths anymore, and thank goodness for antibiotics, but there was a global pandemic, killer wasps, recession worries, and I guess were all moving to space now? Over and over people come to me saying that while they used to have a handle on their anxiety, over the last few years in grown to untenable levels. One technique that I often employ with these clients is exposure therapy.
Now I know what you're thinking, do I have to get COVID to overcome my fear of it? No, definitely not. Exposure therapy is the safe and structured practice of gradual exposure to troubling stimuli in order to build a client's confidence level in managing anxiety and fear. For example, a client with an underlying fear of being trapped or stuck has a long-term goal of traveling by airplane. The combination of not being in control of the plane and not being able to take a break to get off the plane makes this experience a 10/10 on their scale of anxiety. With that client we would create a list of fears in this same vein ranging from 1, the least amount of anxiety, to 10, getting on a plane. Some of the exposures we might practice could include getting on an elevator or going through a car wash. In all of these cases, we would start by developing a list of coping strategies to manage anxiety. We then visualize the experience, utilizing the coping strategies as the anxiety develops, and taking note when the anxiety decreases. Then the client might practice the same exposure in real life.
Our anxiety and fear can be visualized as a bell curve. As it rises we become more anxious that we will always feel this way or that something bad will happen, but as it decreases we can develop more confidence in our ability to manage the anxiety. By practicing consistent gradual exposures clients learn that they can manage their anxiety and that therefore experience less severe anxiety.
It is important to recognize that if you are wanting to try real exposure therapy to overcome anxiety and fear the best way to go about it is to seek guidance from a licensed professional. That being said, there are ways you can implement some of these strategies on your own. Here are a few tips to get started:
Identify what is causing your fear or anxiety. Once you have identified the source of your fear or anxiety, create a plan to gradually expose yourself to it in a safe way.
Identify coping strategies which help to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Deep belly breathing, drinking water, and self-talk can all be good techniques to start with.
Start small. Begin by exposing yourself to the situation in small doses using visualization, before increasing the duration or intensity of the situation.
Stick with it. As you expose yourself to the situation, it is important to stay with it in order to see the results. Pay attention to how the anxiety rises within you as well as how it decreases when using a coping strategy.
Reframe your thoughts. As you expose yourself to the situation, practice reframing the negative thoughts you may have about it.
Seek help. If you find that you are having difficulty with implementing exposure therapy techniques into your life, consider seeking professional help. A therapist can help you come up with a personalized plan for facing your fear or anxiety.
Wherever your anxiety may be coming from the impact of it can be overwhelming. Prolonged stress and anxiety can lead to depression as well as physical ailments. Allowing yourself to sit with the anxiety and practice releasing it can be a great way to develop healthier and happier living. As always if you're in need of more direction or insight I am here to help!