Using Desensitisation When Coping With a Phobia

When humans endure the debilitation of a specific anxiety, the most effective way to overcome this anxiety ‘is to face it,’ in other words ‘expose yourself to the fear.’  If a person chooses to ignore or avoid a frightening situation then the intensity of the anxiety may never dissipate and in some cases can become worse.

It is not easy to face something that makes you fearful, but avoidance is not the answer.  Facing a phobia head on is achievable by breaking it down into manageable small steps, and working through it at your own pace. 

Instead of entering an anxious situation head on, by gradually exposing yourself to the fear in small increments, you will usually gain achievable results, building your confidence along the way.  If you avoid a situation on a continual basis, you will more than likely develop a phobia of that particular situation or subject that is causing you the fear and avoidance, i.e. planes, lifts, spiders, etc…..

To alleviate your anxiety or decrease the fear associated with the behaviour, you need to ‘expose yourself ’ to the situation repeatedly over time until your anxiety decreases and you begin to feel better.  This is what is known as desensitising from the one thing that makes you anxious.”  To do this you have to ‘face that fear directly.’  No one said it is easy, and many people find it too difficult to face and choose to avoid the situations that cause them fear altogether.   By desensitising from a situation you directly confront the situation that causes you fear, allowing your anxiety to rise and fall while you are in the situation.  By doing this, you will more than likely, gradually overcome the fear associated with the anxiety.  Another way of approaching the fear is to build up to it, take small manageable steps towards your fear and as you pass through each step successfully you are ready to move to the next step.

It is suggested on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most anxious, to only stay in the situation until your fear level reaches four or five and then remove yourself for a time.  It’s not advisable to be in a situation where your anxiety is up around nine or ten on the anxiety scale as this will most likely put you in a position where you won’t confront the situation at all.  You don’t want to go into full blown panic, instead work on the anxiety in small steps.

It is important to note that if a person repeatedly enters the situation in a relaxed state, at a gradual level until they feel comfortable, the result will eventually allow them to overcome the tendency to respond with anxiety.

The idea is to train yourself to feel relaxed and safe in response to an anxious situation, thus eventually giving you the satisfaction of no longer feeling anxious in that circumstance.  Relaxation and anxiety are known to be incompatible responses, so the result a person would strive to obtain through desensitisation is to learn to remain in the ‘anxious’ situation and stay calm at the same time.

Results have shown that desensitisation or exposure, is the single most effective available treatment for phobias.  The only way to overcome your fear is to face it, keeping in mind that this should be done in small increments.

It is suggested that, on average, it takes six months to two years of continued commitment to overcome an anxiety issue or phobia, working on it approximately three to five times a week.  Of course this varies for each individual person and the severity of the issue.  Exposure is not an easy or comfortable process to go through, as it demands a strong commitment and you know that you are going to be anxious, so not something to look forward to.  Having the guidance and support of a counsellor, a family member or a friend can make this an easier process to work through.

How do I Get Started?

It is about setting achievable goals and creating your very own hierarchy for each of these goals.

A hierarchy is an incremental series of approaches to your anxious situation, commencing with minimal exposure to the situation and gradually, with small steps, increasing your degree of exposure until you are feeling confident to confront the situation without anxiety at all.

Some people have more than one anxious issue. If that is the case for you it would be advisable to work on only one anxious situation at a time.  It is important to be aware of the specific elements of your situation that make you fearful, this way you will have a sense of control over that particular situation and in your own time be able to pick up the pace through the desensitisation process.

If you struggle to get beyond a certain step in your hierarchy, go back and keep repeating the one before it until you have successfully managed to move through that step.  Then move on to the next step in your hierarchy.  Set goals that are low and achievable and don’t feel disheartened if some days are worse than others.  This is a normal response.  Be prepared for a few steps forward and then some steps backward.  Don’t get discouraged, try again the next day, after all, everyone has good days and bad days in life no matter what the circumstances.

Remember: don’t move too fast if you are not feeling comfortable, it is quite all right to sit on the one hierarchy level for a period of time.  If you can manage it, great, then move on to your next level of hierarchy.  If you are feeling intense fear, drop down a level and keep working there.

Just be mindful that the idea is to temporarily leave the fearful situation and then return when you feel a little more comfortable.  While it is necessary to feel some discomfort in a situation, the aim is not to go into full blown panic as this will simply send you right back to where you started.  Keep in mind that a little discomfort and a little anxiety is needed for you to progress through your hierarchy and gradually desensitise.

Use helpful skills such as “self-talk”

“I know I can do this”

“It might not be easy for me at first, but with practice it will improve”

Other useful tips:

Try to remember positive “self-talk” in your mind or write words down on a card that you may be able to keep in your wallet and pull out when you need them.

Have some relaxation music with you on your phone and listen to it when you feel panicked.

Take a support person with you, sometimes another person’s encouragement is all that you need to spur you on.

There are various ways to help you through managing your anxiety, meditation, yoga or physical exercise may be helpful.

Keeping a journal of your daily activities is a fantastic way of being self-aware of how you are coping.  Write down your thoughts and feelings when confronted with anxious situations and then later read what you have written down.  Are your thoughts negative, unhelpful?  Try to counteract them with positive self-talk, read it, then re-read it until you believe it.

Remember, recovery simply does not progress in a linear manner, sometimes you will plateau and other times you may relapse but you will also have successes.  Setbacks are an integral part of your recovery.  Keep in mind that this process may stir up repressed feelings and some emotions such as anger, fear or frustration, or you may wonder what the hell you are doing, this is normal.

No state of anxiety is permanent, it will pass as the body metabolises excess adrenaline, and so major panic will not last longer than five to ten minutes. Lesser degrees of anxiety may last a little longer than a few minutes, though they too will eventually dissipate.  Keep in mind that each time you feel anxious you are a step further to recovery even if it appears challenging.

If it becomes all too much and you feel that you are NOT progressing at all, seek some support through a counsellor who specialises in working with people who live with phobias.  There are also many programs through hospitals and mental health centers that can assist you with phobias so research what is available in your area.

You can contact me here to make a booking if you would like some support in working through your phobia.

106 George Street
East Maitland NSW 2323

6/88 John Street
Singleton NSW 2330

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