An important part of managing your stress and anxiety is to face your fears. If you never put yourself in anxiety-provoking social situations, then you will never experience success and realize that things don’t always go as bad as we think they will. The more a situation is avoided, the scarier it can become.
This not only applies to those with social anxiety, but also to anyone who has a fear that holds them back. Some of the most common fears in the world are public speaking, riding an airplane, and heights. However, the list of phobias and fears is infinite. Sometimes, you may turn to use drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling fear.
Through a process called exposure therapy, you can directly and repeatedly face feared objects, activities, and situations to reduce your anxiety. While this process can be frightening, it is not dangerous and will eventually lessen your anxiety. While usually completed with a therapist, there are ways you can try to tackle some of your fears on your own. Let’s take a look at how you can practice exposure therapy on your own:
Make a list
First, make a list of the objects, activities, and situations that you fear. For example, if you fear dogs, items on the list may include “seeing dogs on television”, “seeing a dog behind a fence”, “being in a room with a dog” and “petting a dog.” If you have multiple fears you wish to tackle, make a separate list for each fear.
Build a fear ladder
After your fear list is complete, rank the fears from the least frightening to the most frightening. It may help to give each item a fear rating from 0 (no fear) to 100 (extreme fear). Then, you will begin to build a fear ladder. Choose an ultimate goal and use your list to form activities to build up to your final goal. Here’s an example:
Goal: Hold a Spider
Look at pictures of spiders
Watch spiders on television
Be in a room with a spider
Stand in front of a spider in a glass cage
Stand next a someone holding a spider
Touch the spider
Hold the spider
Your Fear ladder should include activities that you can do with mild anxiety, and slowly build up to activities that cause extreme anxiety. You must be gradually moving towards your goal in small steps. There is no perfect number of activities; choose enough to create small steps up in fear but not so many that you are avoiding the bigger goal.
Facing the Fear
Starting with the activity on your fear ladder causes the least anxiety and repeatedly engages in the activity. With each repetition, ask yourself what your fear rating is at the beginning. If it is a situation you can stay in for some time (e.g. standing in a crowded mall) then remain in the activity for a prolonged period until your fear reduces by at least 50%. In other words, if you start the activity with a fear rating of 60/100, they remain in the activity until your fear rating reaches 30/100.
If it is an activity that you cannot remain in (e.g. saying hello to a stranger) do the activity in a loop (e.g. saying hello to multiple strangers, one after another). Do the first step on your fear ladder over and over until you no longer feel anxious doing it, or only experience very mild anxiety. Once you can face the situation with minimal anxiety, move on to the next step on the ladder.
It is important to practice regularly. The more often you face a fear, the quicker the fear will dissipate. Some fears can be faced daily (e.g. driving on the highway) while others can be faced less often (e.g. driving in holiday traffic). Make yourself a schedule and stick to it. This will help you stay on track to meeting your goal. You will also want to occasionally expose yourself to steps on your ladder that you have already overcome; this will keep the fear from creeping back.
Rewarding yourself for facing fears and feeling anxiety is not an easy task. Therefore, each time you successfully face a fear you should reward yourself. You may choose to reward yourself with positive self-talk, a material item, or a night out with friends. You may also want to use these rewards as motivation to tackle the next step.
How Does This Work?
A key component of anxiety is the belief that we will not be able to handle the fear. By placing yourself in anxiety-provoking situations gradually and repeatedly, you find that you can handle the anxiety and discomfort. Seeing that you have the strength to handle the situation can help reduce the anxiety surrounding it. With each successful trial, your anxiety will lessen, and eventually, you will move up to tackling the biggest fear. This process is difficult and takes planning, patience, and persistence. However, exposure therapy has proven to be the most effective treatment for fears and phobias.
Practicing exposure therapy can be very difficult for oneself. If you feel that you need help, you may ask a friend or family member to help you through the process. Alternatively, many people seek professional help with exposure therapy. If this sounds like a treatment option you would like to pursue, you may find a therapist that’s right for you here at Open Path. Interested in seeing one of our therapists for an affordable rate? Start your search here.