Facing your fears in a gradual manner is the most effective way to overcome your fears and phobias, and is called exposure. This involves exposing yourself gradually and repeatedly to your feared object or situation, in a safe and controlled way. Eventually, you learn how to “ride out” and tolerate the anxiety and distress until the anxiety passes and subsides, also known as desensitization. With desensitization, each repeated exposure to the feared stimulus is associated with less and less anxiety, until your anxiety is eradicated.
However, most people with anxiety choose to avoid their anxiety-provoking situation altogether. The logic is: why do I need to continue exposing myself when it only leads to anxiety? It is normal to avoid situations you fear, but avoidance does not allow you to figure out that the things you fear are not as dangerous as you think. Also, avoidance does not allow you to be desensitized to your anxiety-provoking situation. On the contrary…avoidance leads even more anxiety. So with exposure, you start to change the way you think, as things are not as dangerous as you think, and you start to have less anxiety to your feared situation as you think differently. Exposure also allows you to be desensitized to the feared situation, so eventually the anxiety goes away. Exposure is not dangerous, and it will not make the anxiety worse. Eventually, your anxiety will naturally subside.
Exposure involves taking inventory of the situations you fear, then grouping all the similar fears together and working on each grouping separately. When looking at each grouping, you then start with situations that are less scary, then you gradually work your way up to situations which cause you a great deal of anxiety- this is also known as graded exposure. If you exposed yourself immediately to your feared situation, it would most likely lead to overwhelming anxiety, and you probably would not expose yourself to that situation voluntarily again. So that’s why we utilize graded exposure, as you are able to tolerate the milder anxiety that you get when you are exposed to less scary situations. As an example, for those with arachnophobia (spider phobia), it is easier to be exposed to a picture of a spider than to be exposed to an actual spider. So with graded exposure, you brainstorm and list all the similar situations that make you fearful (for example, a picture of a spider, listening to a talk about spiders, the actual spider). After coming up with this list, then you rank them according to the degree of anxiety. In graded exposure, you then start exposing yourself to the situation you ranked as the least scary. With repeated exposure to the less scary situations, your anxiety eventually dissipates, as you change the way you think, and you see the benefits of desensitization. After mastering the less scary situations, then you move onto the next higher scary situation, and repeat the exposure process until you master that situation. Eventually, you will be able to see an actual spider without debilitating anxiety.
With continued exposure over time, you build confidence in those situations, your anxiety dissipates, and you may even come to enjoy them. This occurs naturally. It’s like anything that causes us fear and worry, like a fear of water. First you dip your feet in the water, then your legs. Then you might sign up for swimming lessons, and the instructor educates you about how to swim. Then you might soak your body into the water. Then eventually, you may dive into the water, and pretty soon, you are swimming in the water on your own, and you may even come to enjoy yourself. This is the same process for anything that is fearful and worrisome, like learning to drive a car, learning to ride a bike, or learning to overcome a fear of heights. Once you get enough practice, your confidence builds, and soon the anxiety dissipates, and you may even start to enjoy it.
You may have doubts about exposure, as you may have tried it before, and your anxiety worsened or persisted. Maybe you had too much exposure too soon (maybe you started with the actual spider), so your anxiety became overwhelming and you continued to avoid. Or you did not get to practice repeatedly to get the benefits of exposure. Exposing yourself once does not give you the benefits of desensitization, which is milder and milder anxiety with each repeated exposure. To find out more about graded exposure and desensitization, and to get started with eradicating your anxiety, please consider purchasing my book, Anxiety Protocol. Anxiety Protocol will help you get more benefit out of exposure done the right way.