Exposure Therapy

If you’re serious about overcoming your anxiety, there are two essential aspects of it that you must address. The first is changing how you think about your anxiety. What I mean by this is that you must somehow get a new perspective on it so that you react differently to anxiety when it grabs takes hold. If you were taking a 2-part course on “Managing Anxiety”, the thinking part it would be “Anxiety 101”.

What I mean by thinking differently about anxiety is not getting “freaked out” by its uncomfortable symptoms because you’d be able to recognize them when they are occurring. So, instead of thinking, “I can’t catch my breath and my heart’s pounding! What if I’m having a heart attack!! you’d know to tell yourself, “I’m short of breath and my heart’s beating faster. . . I’m obviously anxious right now.”

The other essential element of overcoming anxiety – – “Anxiety 202” – – is learning to react differently to it. This entails doing something new – – probably the opposite of what you’ve been doing to try to manage your anxiety. This second, essential task has a name; it’s called exposure.

What does exposure mean? Pretty much what it sounds like: it means facing, (versus avoiding), something you’re afraid of. In other words, intentionally exposing yourself to the situation that provokes fear and anxiety in you, which is, understandably, the last thing you want to do. “You’re recommending that I purposely make myself anxious?!,” Yes, you have that right. Here’s why.

A key, paradoxical, principle of anxiety is that it keeps reoccurring the more you try to avoid its source. Anxiety fools you into believing – – incorrectly – – that the situation you’re avoiding is dangerous when it’s not! Well, that’s the way it feels to you, or you wouldn’t be avoiding it.

The way you correct this error is to go toward the source of your anxiety and tolerate the scary thoughts and uncomfortable physical sensations until the anxiety subsides. That process is called exposure. And doing it the right way has been demonstrated to be VERY effective in overcoming anxiety.

Of course, there are other ways to manage your anxiety, like taking medication such as Xanax before approaching a scary situation. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing you if you do this. It just won’t help you recover from anxiety in the long run. Most people who contact me for treatment of their anxiety don’t want to use medication! That’s why they call me.
Think of it this way: if your little girl fell off her bicycle and was scared to ride it again, what would you encourage her to do? You’d explain to her why it’s important to get right back on the bicycle and ride again. And you’d be exactly right! You’d be prescribing exposure.

Of course, you probably wouldn’t pressure your child into getting on the bike without preparing her. So first, you’d probably explain why getting back on the bicycle is the best thing she can do to get over her fear. Then, you might tell her you’ll hold on to the seat while she tries it again. Next, you might encourage her to just ride to the stop sign and back. In other words, you’d show her how to gradually expose herself to riding the bicycle so she can learn – – in manageable steps – – that it is not something she needs to fear. You would have also prepared her to manage her anxiety by explaining to her that she will be afraid – – at first – – but that she will handle it. And – – the more she rides – – the less fearful she’ll be.

That’s exposure.