Conquering anxiety with exposure therapy

Recently I was talking to a family member about his struggles with anxiety, and I gave him this advice: Do one thing every day that makes you uncomfortable. 

Even the thought of doing that is distasteful, but the concept is the basis of something called Exposure Response Prevention (ERP), a therapy that works! I use it regularly with my patients suffering from OCD and anxiety, and I’ve seen great results.

The idea is that conquering these small uncomfortable tasks will lead you to taking on bigger anxiety-producing situations that are causing problems in your life. The anxiety will lessen as you regularly face it.

For example, let’s say you have social anxiety and it’s preventing you from having the romantic relationships you crave. In therapy, I would help you make a plan to do something every day that your anxiety would normally prohibit you from doing. You could start out by nodding to a stranger as you pass them on the street. Then you could move on to making a phone call and having a conversation with someone safe. You could talk to someone in line with you at the grocery store. As you do something like this every day, you’ll be emboldened to try a conversation with someone you find attractive, ask someone to dance, or invite someone on a date.

The important thing is to avoid “ritualizing” after the uncomfortable action. For someone with social anxiety, the ritual is often along the lines of obsessively rehashing the interaction in their head. Those with other anxieties or obsessions might google phrases related to their fear or wash their hands repeatedly, for example. Instead of indulging in the ritual, you should purposefully do something else after the experience.

It may be daunting to think of taking on the goal to do something every day that makes you uncomfortable, but it really works. An experienced therapist can help guide you through the process.

For people out there dealing with OCD, anxiety, and other mental disorders, there is hope! If you’re willing to accept help and set goals, you can come to lead the life you want to lead.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

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