So what is exposure therapy? Keeping it simple here! Exposure therapy is literally facing the things you fear.
Back when I was in therapy and struggling with anxiety, panic disorder, and agoraphobia, I remember my therapist asking me what a goal was that I was working towards. I thought to myself, GOALS? Lady, I’m just trying my best to stay afloat every day! But really, there were things that I wanted to do, but I didn’t consider them to be goals because I wasn’t actively working towards them.
Most people had no idea what I was even struggling with, because it appeared as though I did all of the things other people did. Driving in cars was really hard for me, but I did it. I went to school and work every day (well, aside from the days that I literally couldn’t because of how hard it was on me physically, mentally, and emotionally). But when I didn’t have to go to school or work, I would avoid leaving my house entirely because it was just so hard, draining, and scary.
But when my therapist asked me that question, about what my goals were, it got me thinking. I had always wanted to travel. I had always been a very adventurous person, and I wanted that part of me back. I said to her, “I want to travel, but I’ve never been on a plane and the thought of it terrifies me.” She looked at me with a huge smile and said, “I know, I can see it in your eyes that you are an adventurer.”
So she told me to go to the airport just to see and get a feel for what it was like. Just hearing her tell me to go to the airport almost led to a panic attack. She said, “Take someone with you, someone that has been before and just drive around, then park, then go in and walk around. And if you don’t make it inside when you go, that’s okay. You’ll keep going until you do.” I honestly thought that she was crazy for suggesting that I do this, and that I would look like a crazy person if I just went to the airport to walk around.
I talked to a friend that had traveled several times, and he thought it was a great idea and offered to go with me. So I did it! I went to the airport. I walked around. I asked my friend questions. And by doing this, it allowed me to face a small part of my fear, rather than tackle the whole thing at once. And by having support, I felt more comfortable.
So did I jump on a flight the next week? Heck no! It took me months to get there, and a couple more trips to the airport, but you know what? I got on a freaking airplane and I went on a trip. I flew from Maine to New York City, which is only an hour flight. And in hindsight, going to NYC was not the best idea for my first trip for so many obvious reasons. But you know what would have happened if I had never taken that trip to the airport? My fear would have continued to grow, and I would have made it harder for myself to overcome my fear of flying on an airplane and traveling.
Avoiding your fears and the things that make you anxious long-term will likely strengthen your fears and the anxiety, and make your fears even more difficult to overcome.
I’ve used exposure therapy to face many of my fears, like driving in cars, going into stores, going places alone, being in social situations, and going on trips.
People often ask me if exposure therapy works. The short answer is yes, it does work. And the more informed answer is, it works best if you have the necessary tools and support you need, AND are ready to do the work.
Here are my top tips for exposure therapy:
Always start small and set realistic goals. Gradually exposing yourself to your fears will help you to work through them and will reduce and even eliminate the anxious and panicky response while facing them. I didn’t go to the airport once and then say, okay, in one week I am going to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world. My goal was to get on a plane and take a trip, and I continued to take the small steps that would get me there without focusing on when I would make it happen.
Don’t force yourself to do exposure when you are already having a tough day. There is such a thing as pushing yourself too hard, and added stress will only increase anxiety and panic. It’s okay to take breaks when you need them, and taking breaks will help support your mental health. Remember, self-care is so important and should be a priority!
Having support is important. Needing support and asking for it does not make you dependent, needy, or annoying, it makes you human! You are struggling with something that is really tough, so reach out and ask for support when you’re facing your fears. You don’t have to do exposure alone. And if you are working up to being able to do things solo, it’s okay to take someone with you the first few times, or even the first ten times! By continuing to take those small steps forward with help, you’ll be able to do things by yourself in no time!
Setbacks are going to happen. It’s your response to setbacks that is important. If you beat yourself up when you don’t do whatever it is that you set out to do, this will only cause and heighten anxiety and panic. Accept the setback and continue to push forward while reminding yourself that you are capable, strong, and brave.
Give yourself praise when you face your fears, whether you fully do whatever it is you set out to do or not. Your brain needs to hear that you are doing a good job, BECAUSE YOU ARE.
Exposure therapy helped me in so many ways. It helped me to believe in myself. It helped me to recognize that most of the things that I was fearing weren't really as scary as they seemed. It helped me to know and see that I am capable, strong, brave, and powerful. It helped me to learn how important support is, and to accept it. It helped me to create stronger and more meaningful relationships with people.
But most of all, it helped me to begin living my life.
Since that flight to NYC, I’ve flown all over the U.S. and have even flown to England, Aruba, Mexico, and Guadeloupe. It still brings tears of joy to my face to acknowledge how far I’ve come. I’m pretty darn strong and amazing, AND SO ARE YOU!