Big fears are a complex connection of smaller components. Fears generally have a time line – a when. They have a reason – a why. They have a pattern – a what. They have an outlet, a venue for expression – a how. The type of counseling I use is called cognitive-behavioral. It’s a method that addresses each of these components – the when, the why, the what, and the how.
By understanding when things started and why, you gain context. When you develop a strategy for changing your behavior, you change what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, allowing you to replace those old, negative patterns with new, healthier ones.
The way to combat the progressive nature of fear is to combat it with another form of progression – a technique called progressive exposure or systematic desensitization. The escalation of fear makes it seem impossibly big; to tackle it, you’ve got to cut it down to size. Then, starting small, you progressively work your way up the ladder of your fear, becoming if not comfortable at least tolerant of each progressive rung.
Here are some steps I recommend for progressive exposure:
1) First, this has to be something you’re willing to do, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. Systematic desensitization works very well in conjunction with regular counseling. Your therapist acts as a coach and encourager, helping you prepare for, execute, and debrief after each step or rung of the process. If you’re not able to work with a professional, sometimes you can call on a trusted friend to partner with you.
2) Before you start, practice relaxation techniques and identify those that work best for you. Be comfortable with them in lower-stress situations, integrating them into your routine so they will be available to you when the stress stakes are higher.
3) If you experience several specific fears or concerns, start with the one you feel most able to tackle first, generally the one that causes you the fewest physical reactions. Then map out the course of your fear. Start at the bottom run and chronicle each aspect until you reach the top:
- thing or activity you fear
- where the fear starts
- what happens and what you’re feeling
- where it leads, as in what you’re worried will happen
- what actually happened
4) Keep a journal. There is so much to be gained by taking on the challenge, and, realistically, unless you take the time to write something down, you’re likely to forget it.
5) Give yourself the gift of time. It’s the progress that matters, not the pace.
6) No cheating. You will experience discomfort as you work through the process. In the past, you may have developed coping strategies that involve masking or numbing the discomfort. These are cheats and will negate your effort and work.
7) Don’t be a hero. You don’t need to do this alone. The more debilitating the anxiety, the more you may need to work with a trained professional or, at the very least, a trusted friend or relative.
SOURCE: Chapter 11 in Overcoming Anxiety, Worry and Fear: Practical Ways to Find Peace.