You may have learned that doing things, exposing yourself to feared stimuli, talking to THAT person, doing THAT thing, will help decrease your anxiety symptoms.  But you feel like you just can’t do it…do the behaviors to help free you from the cycle.  It’s just hard.  Especially time and time again.

What do I mean by exposures?

Facing the fear.

Some examples:  Fear of dogs, bugs, airplanes, large public venues, movie theaters, germs, going outside, seeing the doctor, driving, social events like parties.

It can feel like a small fear or a large fear. 

These fears can be so challenging that they interfere with your life.  For example, if you have a fear of bugs, you just can’t go on that camping trip with your friends.  May not feel like a big deal but then it begins to bother you and get worse.  You can’t go outside in your backyard.  Or front yard.  You may now run from the front door to your car and then run from your car to your office or another house just to avoid bugs.

Anxious thoughts get to be irrational.  At first, they seem reasonable- you may get stung by a bee or bit by a mosquito.  And then they get to be illogical.

Fear of airplanes- oh I’ll just drive or take a boat- but really how long will that take?  Or is it actually possible?

How much of your life are you missing because of this fear?

Anxious thoughts just grow if you do behavior that supports the anxious thought.

So, what is one to do?  You can’t just get on a plane tomorrow if you are afraid of flying now?

This is where exposures come in.  Graded exposures are behaviors that you do incrementally to face the feared stimulus little at a time.  It does mean eventually getting on a plane, but may include less scary things like looking at pictures of planes or pictures of parts of planes.  It may be looking at videos of others on planes using the internet as your source.  Possibly sitting in a chair that rocks and rocking it back and shaking it to simulate take off.  How about driving to an airport and watching planes take off and land?

What your exposures are depends on you and your tolerance of feeling uncomfortable, willing to have the physical symptoms of anxiety for a while with the knowledge that you CAN tolerate them and feel shaken for a short period of time.  Remember-  you have felt discomfort before and lived through it.

What you are willing to tolerate is up to you.  You set the pace, with the goal of facing the fear and feeling all of the physical and mental distress, so that you can teach your brain you CAN do this.

When I got in an auto accident, I was very afraid to be a passenger in a car or drive a car.  I did not want to go places.  I knew this was in response to the accident, so I took it at a slow pace.  I forced myself to be a passenger since that was less scary to me then driving.  I went short distances with others.  I eventually forced myself to drive short distances, and then in time longer ones.  It was hard because
I was not feeling at ease for quite a while.  But in time I did it and am no longer afraid of driving long distances.  There are times in my drives that I get anxious thoughts while driving and I ride them out- remembering that I’m an experienced driver of many years and have the ability to drive safely from point A to B.  and those times when I get fearful for a few minutes aren’t great, but do subside.

Teaching your brain to “ride out” the fear is not fun and no joke.  It can be downright terrifying.  And it’s the way out.

So, start your exposures.  Continue them, gradually getting closer to the actual feared experience.  And then practice over and over and over- teaching your brain that you are not in extreme peril…you will be ok.

And if you stop those exposures for a while, start them again.  You can alter them so they are more tolerable, and you will feel better having accomplished them.

You CAN do these things! As anxiety specialist Kimberly Quinlan LMFT says, “It’s a beautiful day to do hard things!”

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