Is Exposure Therapy For Me and Does It Really Work?
Imagine you are sitting at a table in a secluded corner inside a coffee house, and a rowdy group finds the spot next to you vacant. The moment you see them head in your direction, you feel your chest tighten, your breathing becomes quick and shallow, and beads of sweat begin to form on your forehead and hands. Your insides tremble and you feel uncomfortable and stressed. You ask yourself the question, “Why am I like this?”
The answer could very simply be due to a type of social anxiety disorder, a trauma in your past, or unsaid phobias resurfacing. If you want to overcome this emotional, mental, and physical response to a situation, exposure therapy is a treatment proven to help you conquer your anxieties, fears, traumas, and the triggers that go along with them.
“Exposure therapy can be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders. In fact, around 60–90% of people have either no symptoms or very mild symptoms of their original disorder upon completion of their course of exposure therapy,” writes Beth Sissons in her article on Medical News Today.
Exposure therapy is one of the more widely used treatments for those diagnosed with disorders of PTSD, phobias, social anxiety disorders, and trauma, to name a few. This program was developed to help people face and overcome their fears and anxiety issues. It can help a person manage the symptoms of their disorder and lower feelings of anxiety, fear, distress, and in some cases, even depression due to trauma experienced in childhood or adulthood alike. During the treatment, people will be exposed to a scenario that triggers a strong emotional or mental response that causes fear or panic for them. Under controlled conditions, with time, they are able to conquer their phobias, anxiety, and/or depression in an environment that is safe to do so.
Therapists and counselors utilize different kinds of exposure therapy solely dependent on their patients disorder or fears. In some cases, a therapist or counselor may decide to introduce a situation to their patient that they must persevere through. This brings the patient face to face with fears or anxiety issues they don’t understand or know how to control yet. For example, a person with a social anxiety disorder may be asked to hand out flyers, mingle with people during lunch break at a busy restaurant, or walk up to random strangers to ask about their day and give them a compliment out of the blue. Another type of exposure therapy counselors use is to talk through the events that caused anxiety problems and ask the patient to recall and reform the images and situation in their mind.
Personally, being thrust into a situation that I needed to choose how to react both emotionally and mentally was the best way to conquer the anxiety, social shyness, and fear I experienced. Throughout elementary and middle school, I was constantly put into situations that made me highly uncomfortable to the point where I would start sweating and would fumble with my speech, my tongue slurring the words together in an incomprehensible manner.
Group work was one of those situations that I was unable to talk properly, and in many cases, I would feel highly embarrassed to the point where I hardly spoke up unless the other person was quiet and shy like me. I didn’t know how to talk to anyone who I wasn’t close friends with, and even then, I still fumbled with my words when I was speaking with my friends’ parents or older siblings.
Walking up to a cashier to check out with my parents was also another one of my fears or asking a store attendant for help locating an item as I got older. I always spoke quietly whenever the waiter came to me to ask what I wanted to order. I had dreams in the past where I was ordering my food and the waiter never heard me, to the point I yelled in both my dream and reality, asking for my lemonade. When the waiter came up to me with his pad and pen, I always looked to my dad or mom for help when he asked me to repeat myself. They would always say, “You can do it. Just speak up a little so he can understand you. It’s loud and busy in here.”
By the start of second grade, I was a wreck running on high, raging emotions that swung like a pendulum from extremely happy to extremely sad, or angry; though, I did my best to stay to myself whenever I became angry. Over the summer before second grade, I had lost my mother to a seizure. When I went back to school a couple months later, I did not want to step a foot on the school’s property because I was scared about how my classmates would perceive and treat me.
Thankfully, my second grade teacher, Ms. Rich, and my best friend were amazingly considerate, compassionate, and kind. At first, I was wary of my new teacher; however, after the first week of school, I began to open up to her about what was happening on the inside. The number of times I found myself in her arms was shocking to me. I thought I wouldn’t be able to experience the love of a mother again. She understood that I wasn’t always ready to be with my classmates and that some days, my anxiety and grief were worse than others. And, as I progressed through elementary, I was insanely blessed by each teacher I had.
Because of the constant love I received from my teachers, friends, and family, I slowly, but surely, began to climb out of my shell and show my true colors, shaking off the fear, anxiety, and social shyness bit by bit.
Eighth grade was a major turning point for me in my life and I emerged transformed and greatly matured. One of my teachers in middle school approached me during the fourth quarter, asking me to take part in the 8th grade led chapel in one to two weeks. I was very tempted to say, “No, thanks. I can’t do that.” However, I somehow managed to convince myself to do it. I put together a fifteen minute long message, practiced with Mr. Blair, and stood up in front of the middle school to give my message. For the first few minutes, I could hardly speak and became emotional, so I spoke slowly, and rarely glanced up from my paper. However, as I continued, and shared more of what was on my heart and mind, I felt the anxiety begin to drain from me and looked up to meet the eyes of my peers. From that moment on, I was able to speak more clearly, make eye contact with others, and ultimately faced my fear of crowds. I overcame much of my social shyness and the fear of how I was perceived by others.
Exposure therapy, though I did not seek professional aid, forced me to face my fears and anxieties about people head on. After staying exposed to a situation long enough, I noticed I was able to overcome the onset of anxiety that caused me to sweat and jumble my words together. Today, while I still struggle with the common sweaty palms and a few tongue twisters, I have learned to control my anxiety and relieve stress in a healthy way that allows me to continue to grow and become more resilient to fears of the past and present.
Exposure therapy can help you in a very similar way. Maybe you will need a more intensive environment or a peaceful one. Start small, like at a coffee shop, and work your way up to places like crowded subways, planes, buses, sidewalks, office buildings, and more. Exposure therapy’s results are not immediate, they are gradual and build on top of each other. Don’t be afraid to seek professional aid if you feel like you need it. So, be willing to take that first step to a more confident, resilient, and courageous you. It all begins with how much you want to change and are willing to overcome.
Written by: Bailey Steyaert for a class blog assignment. 2021.
For more information on exposure therapy, check out this article: