Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders

Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety isn’t a pleasant sensation, so it’s only natural to avoid it if you can. One of the ways that people do this is by steering clear of the situations that make them anxious. If you have a fear of heights, you might drive three hours out of your way to avoid crossing a tall bridge. Or if the prospect of public speaking leaves your stomach in knots, you might skip your best friend’s wedding in order to avoid giving a toast. Aside from the inconvenience factor, the problem with avoiding your fears is that you never have the chance to overcome them. In fact, avoiding your fears often makes them stronger.
 
 
Exposure therapy, as the name suggests, exposes you to the situations or objects you fear. The idea is that through repeated exposures, you’ll feel an increasing sense of control over the situation and your anxiety will diminish. The exposure is done in one of two ways: Your therapist may ask you to imagine the scary situation, or you may confront it in real life. Exposure therapy may be used alone, or it may be conducted as part of cognitive-behavioral therapy.
 
 
Systematic Desensitization
 
 
Rather than facing your biggest fear right away, which can be traumatizing, exposure therapy usually starts with a situation that’s only mildly threatening and works up from there. This step-by-step approach is called systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization allows you to gradually challenge your fears, build confidence, and master skills for controlling panic.
 
 
Facing a fear of flying
 
 
Step 1: Look at photos of planes.
 
 
Step 2: Watch a video of a plane in flight.
 
 
Step 3: Watch real planes take off.
 
 
Step 4: Book a plane ticket.
 
 
Step 5: Pack for your flight.
 
 
Step 6: Drive to the airport.
 
 
Step 7: Check-in for your flight.
 
 
Step 8: Wait for boarding.
 
 
Step 9: Get on the plane.
 
 
Step 10: Take the flight.
 
 
Systematic desensitization involves three parts:
 
 
Learning relaxation skills. First, your therapist will teach you a relaxation technique, such as progressive muscle relaxation or deep breathing. You’ll practice in therapy and on your own at home. Once you start confronting your fears, you’ll use this relaxation technique to reduce your physical anxiety response (such as trembling and hyperventilating) and encourage relaxation.
 
 
Creating a step-by-step list. Next, you’ll create a list of 10 to 20 scary situations that progress toward your final goal. For example, if your final goal is to overcome your fear of flying, you might start by looking at photos of planes and end with taking an actual flight. Each step should be as specific as possible, with a clear, measurable objective.
 
 
Working through the steps. Under the guidance of your therapist, you’ll then begin to work through the list. The goal is to stay in each scary situation until your fears subside. That way, you’ll learn that the feelings won’t hurt you and they do go away. Every time the anxiety gets too intense, you will switch to the relaxation technique you learned. Once you’re relaxed again, you can turn your attention back to the situation. In this way, you will work through the steps until you’re able to complete each one without feeling overly distressed.
 
 

Complementary Therapies for Anxiety Disorders

 

 
As you explore your anxiety disorder in therapy, you may also want to experiment with complementary therapies designed to bring your overall stress levels down and help you achieve emotional balance.
 
 
Exercise is a natural stress buster and anxiety reliever. Research shows that as little as 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week can provide significant anxiety relief. To achieve the maximum benefit, aim for at least an hour of aerobic exercise on most days.
 
 
Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, when practiced regularly, can reduce anxiety and increase feelings of emotional well-being.
 
 
Biofeedback uses sensors that measure specific physiological functions—such as heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension—to teach you to recognize your body’s anxiety response and learn how to control it using relaxation techniques.
 
 
Hypnosis is sometimes used in combination with CBT for anxiety. While you’re in a state of deep relaxation, the hypnotherapist uses different therapeutic techniques to help you face your fears and look at them in new ways.
 
 

Making Anxiety Therapy Work For You

 
 
There is no quick fix for anxiety. Overcoming an anxiety disorder takes time and commitment. Therapy involves facing your fears rather than avoiding them, so sometimes you’ll feel worse before you get better. The important thing is to stick with treatment and follow your therapist’s advice. If you’re feeling discouraged with the pace of recovery, remember that therapy for anxiety is very effective in the long run. You’ll reap the benefits if you see it through.
 
 
You can also support your own anxiety therapy by making positive choices. Everything from your activity level to your social life affects anxiety. Set the stage for success by making a conscious decision to promote relaxation, vitality, and a positive mental outlook in your everyday life.
 
 
Learn about anxiety. In order to overcome anxiety, it’s important to understand the problem. That’s where education comes in. Education alone won’t cure an anxiety disorder, but it will help you get the most out of therapy.
 
 
Cultivate your connections with other people. Loneliness and isolation set the stage for anxiety. Decrease your vulnerability by reaching out to others. Make it a point to see friends, join a self-help or support group, or share your worries and concerns with a trusted loved one.
 
 
Adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Physical activity relieves tension and anxiety, so make time for regular exercise. Don’t use alcohol and drugs to cope with your symptoms, and try to avoid stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine, which can make anxiety worse.
 
 
Reduce stress in your life. Examine your life for stress, and look for ways to minimize it. Avoid people who make you anxious, say no to extra responsibilities, and make time for fun and relaxation in your daily schedule.
 
 
 
 

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