This post is the sixth in a series that accompanies each week in my book, Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks. Week 6 begins on page 156 in the print edition.
In the course of my work I’ve witnessed countless men and women face the things that terrify them: driving, walking on bridges, giving speeches, going on dates, using public bathrooms (when the fear is of contamination), and many more. Few things are as inspiring to me as seeing someone push through their fear.
To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have faced so many of my own fears if not for the kind of work I do. Every day I’m encouraging people to confront their fears, so how could I run from my own?
Facing fears is hard, especially when we’re overwhelmed by our fear and only want to escape. That said, it’s often hard to know what it will really be like to confront what we fear. Sometimes it’s harder than we’re expecting, but other times it’s actually easier. The decision to face fear can actually diminish it, perhaps because deciding moves us past the “will-I-or-won’t-I” debate.
Given the intensity of the feelings that can come even in anticipation of facing our fears, I want to give you a few additional ideas based on my observations from coaching others through their fears—and facing my own.
Remember That Fear Is Uncomfortable But Not Dangerous
It’s easy when we’re afraid to fear not only the object or situation that we’re afraid of but the fear itself. As I discuss in the Week 6 chapter, part of facing fears might include facing our fear of fear.
For a related discussion, see this article from the Think Act Be blog on PsychologyToday.com.
Facing Fears Takes Time
It’s not uncommon to want to “sprint” through exposure exercises. For example, if we’ve made a hierarchy to move through progressively, we may be tempted to jump right to the top, to our most difficult activities.
While this strategy can be effective at times, it can also backfire. If the top level is overwhelming and too scary to tolerate, it can be a punishing and counterproductive experience. Trying to go as quickly as possible can also be a paradoxical form of avoidance—a sort of “let’s just get this over with” approach.
I generally encourage people to move through an exposure hierarchy patiently and systematically, trusting that a steady approach will give you the best chance of reaching the top.
In Week 5 I talked about giving yourself something to look forward to for completing tasks, and the same principle applies here. When you plan to reward yourself you can look forward to an additional incentive for doing your exposures (on top of feeling like a rock star).
A related point—I typically encourage people I work with to take care to rest after an intense round of exposure. You can think of it like a physical workout: You work hard, then you rest and recover. Just as muscles grow between workouts, your nervous system will continue to work through the exposure exercises between sessions. Most likely you’ll come back stronger the next time.
Aim for the “Sweet Spot” in the Difficulty of Your Exposures
One of the big challenges in completing exposures can be finding ones that feel appropriately difficult: Too hard and you may not do them, too easy and you won’t get much out of them.
If the “rungs” in your hierarchy are too far apart, look for ways to fill in the gaps. For example, if you’re working on driving exposures and the next step feels out of reach, consider having someone ride with you if that makes it more manageable. As you get more comfortable you can move on to the more challenging version.
Roll With Setbacks
Countless studies have shown that fear reduction isn’t a completely smooth process. It’s common to see a resurgence of fear at times, even when the overall trajectory is toward less fear.
The difficulty of exposures depends on a lot of factors, and can be somewhat unpredictable. We might have a great round of exposure one day and then a surprisingly tough one the next. On the other hand, we might be surprised that something is easier than we expected.
Once You’ve Resolved to Face Your Fears, You’ve Won
There’s a determination I’ve seen so many times, some version of “I’m done running away.” It’s very highly correlated with a successful course of exposure therapy.
When we’ve decided we’re no longer willing to live enslaved by fear, and that we’ll do whatever it takes to be free, we’re unbeatable.
It’s no longer a question of if we’re going to face our fear, but simply of how.
It’s going to happen. We’ve already won. The rest is truly details.
We’re going to do this. We’ll accept nothing less. Nothing can stand in the way of that fierce determination.
Connect to Your Strength
One of the kindest things you can do for yourself is to remember that you’re strong. You may not feel it all the time, maybe rarely. That doesn’t mean your strength has left you.
It’s often when we feel the weakest that in fact we’re showing our true strength, because we keep going. Your willingness to take on this program over the past several weeks is proof of your strength.
You might complete this brief guided exercise to help reconnect with your inner strength.
I encourage you to find and keep your resolve as you face your fear, this week and beyond. I will endeavor to do the same.
I’ll post the next installment on December 12, 2016.