Big fears are a complex connection of smaller components. Fears generally have a timeline – a when. They have a reason – a why. They have a pattern – a what. They have an outlet, a venue for expression – a how.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy incorporates the cognitive. Cognitive relates to your thinking and reasoning. Cognitive connects with your mind. By using your mind, you go back and discover the trigger point, the when, and you work toward uncovering the reasons, the whys. Cognitive is about what you think; the behavioral is about what you do. Changing behavior requires a cognitive component, but once you understand and know the reasons and the background for behavior, you actually have to start doing something different. The behavioral component is about changing your behavior, taking what you do and doing something else, changing how your operate.
When you understand when things started and why, you gain context. When you develop a strategy for changing your behavior, you change what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, allowing you to replace those old, negative patterns with new, healthier ones.
It can be tempting, in progressive exposure, to focus all your attention on the what and the how. Behavior is notoriously challenging to change. You must not shortchange the process. The what and the how give your monster shape, but the when and the why give your monster power. To truly tame your anxiety monster, you need to both resize it and deflate it so it doesn’t blow itself back up again.
Here are the steps I recommend for progressive exposure:
- 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.
- 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 to prepare for, execute, and debrief after each step or rung of the process. You may find that you’re able to make a certain level of progress on your own, only to be stymied at a particular point. Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements! If you’re not able to work with a professional, sometimes you can call on a trusted friend to partner with you.
- 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. If you want to, use the ladder analogy. Start at the bottom rung and chronicle each aspect until you reach the top — the thing or activity you fear, such as flying or heights or public speaking or tight spaces. Where does the fear start and how does it progress? Remember to incorporate your relaxation techniques as you do this part, as even thinking about your fears is often enough to trigger them. Try as much as you can to analyze your fears as a third person. Give yourself permission to observe but not to react.
- Keep working at it. You may find, once you start, that you need to reduce the size of your steps even further. The number of steps it takes to your goal isn’t what’s important; getting to your goal is. This is a journey to conquer your fear, but it is also very much a journey of self-discovery. It should be your goal through this process to learn about yourself and to love yourself. Love yourself enough to stick with it and not take defeat for an answer. You are bigger than your monster. Your life is more important than your fear.
- Keep a journal. I know many of you won’t actually do this, but I’m going to recommend it anyway. There is so much to be gained by taking on this challenge, and, realistically, unless you take the time to write something down, you’re likely to forget it. This is worthwhile work, providing incredible personal insight. Value it by recording it. You never know who may need it in the future — you or someone else.
- Give yourself the gift of time. It’s the progress that matters, not the pace. Each of us is different, with different backgrounds and challenges. This isn’t some sort of test to be aced; it’s your life. It’s worth the time and effort, so give it the effort and allow yourself the time.
- 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. Don’t give in to them.
- Don’t be a hero. Again, you don’t need to do this alone. The more debilitating the anxiety, the more you may need to work with a trained professional. You Aunt Lucile or the neighbor down the street may be fine for tackling certain fears, but some are entrenched and difficult to recover from without professional help. If you need abdominal surgery, would you do it yourself? If you need your transmission rebuilt, would you do it yourself? Don’t feel bad — get the help you need.
If you or a loved one is struggling with fear and anxiety, we invite you to seek out treatment at The Center • A Place of Hope. Treatment begins with a free personal phone call with one of our counselors. Ask yourself “What is fear doing to my life?” Then realize that help is available, and that a life free of this condition is within your reach.The Center • A Place of HOPE specializes in the treatment of fear, anxiety and depression, and uses a whole person approach that allows you to discover what is truly going on in mind, body and spirit. Contact us today at 1-888-771-5166 and begin the healing process.