Facing Fear: Exposure Therapy

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless,unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
Fear is a four-letter word.” Unknown

I recently attended a seminar on the newer techniques of exposure therapy to help people overcome anxiety, fear, and phobias. I learned that we all have our little coping tricks (often unconscious coping tricks!) to keep the anxiety, fear, phobia at bay. Unfortunately, those tricks block us from learning how to actually deal with the anxiety, fear, phobia so that we can live our lives fully. Our little coping tricks never actually address the fears, the anxiety, the phobias. Instead, we find ourselves avoiding whatever sets off the anxiety, constricting our world to reduce the odds of being triggered by a phobia, reducing, eliminating, and shutting out any person, thing or situation that might provoke fearful upset. We don’t go camping. We don’t get on an airplane or cross bridges. We avoid some part of town altogether. We say no to invitations to go out with friends. We don’t get the shot. We avoid taking elevators. We develop little ritualistic ways to survive possible doom… but the fear is always around the corner, at the doorstep, under the bed. If fear is a vampire, we gather our crosses and holy water and keep lots of garlic to keep the fanged monster away… but he never really goes away. And once you let down your guard (forget the cross or garlic, run out of holy water…) the fiend will pounce! To get rid of the monster altogether, we have to face it down and experience triumph over it.

Exposure therapy is an invitation to learn how to actually destroy the proverbial monster. This type of treatment requires full agreement and participation of the person who’s experiencing the anxiety or phobia. The agreement is to work with the therapist to mindfully identify the coping tricks and then to let go of them in baby steps. Then, we can challenge the thoughts that insist 1) we are woefully unprepared to handle the feared person, place, thing, situation and 2) the source of the anxiety is incredibly powerful and will certainly hurt or destroy us. Exposure therapy utilizes thorough assessment, creative thinking, and development of a menu of “exposures” that challenge the use of our coping tricks. The exposures allow us to safely EXPERIENCE different ways of handling what freaks us out, get a reality check, and ultimately learn that we CAN successfully be free from the anxiety, the fear, the phobia.

Question/s of the Day: What do you fear so much that you limit your life in order to play it super safe? What makes you anxious? What brings on a panic attack (if you’ve ever had those)? And, what do you imagine your life would be like if you were not run by the fear, the anxiety, the panic?

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