Written by Dr. Michael Mandrusiak, R.Psych.
Have you ever tried to “get over” your fears by facing it head on but ended up feeling even worse? Like many others, you may have started with high hopes but were left feeling discouraged and helpless about dealing with your anxiety.
Well, there may be hope after all.
COMBATTING ANXIETY WITH SYSTEMATIC DESENSITIZATION
One commonly used psychological intervention to successfully help address anxiety is systematic desensitization using an exposure hierarchy.
Basically, that means facing your fear in a planned and gradual manner to make something that was previously scary a little more routine. When you are extremely anxious about something (say dogs), you tend to avoid it. Your emotion (fear) pulls for you to stay away from what feels dangerous.
And perhaps there was once a good reason for that fear and that protective behavior (for example, a dog bit you as a child). In fact, fear is a useful emotion precisely because it does remind us to engage in protective behavior and to avoid dangers. But fear that is disproportionate to the situation can also limit us from living life.
Over time, the more you avoid something that makes you anxious (whether it is dogs, public speaking, social gatherings, or rollercoasters), the more your anxiety about that thing grows.
You have no opportunity to be desensitized to the fear because you are not able to encounter the feared stimulus and have nothing bad happen. That’s where an exposure hierarchy can come in.
HOW SYSTEMATIC DESENSITIZATION WORKS
When anxiety is limiting your life and you want to do something about it, psychologists or counsellors often work with clients to build a hierarchy of feared situations or stimuli, from mildly anxiety provoking to extremely anxiety provoking.
You then start with exposure to the mildly anxiety provoking stimuli (for example, pictures of small dogs) before moving up the hierarchy as you get systematically desensitized toward and less fearful of the items lower on the hierarchy.
An effective course of systematic desensitization can help you to address your anxiety and open you up to experiencing things that you previously avoided. But there are mistakes that you often make along the way that reduces the effectiveness of the exposure or, worse, can even lead to an increase in anxiety.
REAL LIFE EXAMPLE
The following example from my own life can help to explain why exposure to feared events does not always lead to a reduction in anxiety. By learning from my mistakes, individuals using systematic desensitization can avoid these common pitfalls.
As a young adult, I was out with friends at a midway carnival. My friends decided that they wanted to go on one particular ride, and I was stuck with a dilemma. You see, after years of avoidance, I was quite terrified of amusement park rides. When I was a kid, I had developed a mental rule that I couldn’t handle any ride that turned me upside down. Over time, I began to avoid smaller roller coasters – even ones that did not turn me upside down and that I had previously enjoyed.
But this time I got in line with my friends. I was hoping that if I faced my fear, I could conquer it. As we waited for our turn, I could feel myself getting more and more anxious. My heart was beating quickly, and I had a nauseous feeling in my stomach. Then it was our turn to get on.
The ride had a square of seats with pull-down shoulder bars facing inward into each other attached to the bottom of a large pendulum. As the pendulum began to swing one way and then the other, each time reaching higher and higher up into the air, the box that we were strapped into also spun faster and faster in the perpendicular direction of the pendulum arc.
What most of my friends did was to embrace the experience and scream whole-heartedly with wide open eyes and mouths. Instead of joining them, I was completely overwhelmed and did my best to detach myself from the experience, shutting my eyes tight and trying to distract myself from the uncomfortable sensation of hurtling through the air in countless directions.
At the end of the ride, my friends who had been sitting across from me asked a reasonable question – “Um, are you ok?”. I left resolved to never go on another ride like that ever again. The ride had sensitized me to my fear, not desensitized me to it. Where did I do wrong?
TWO COMMON MISTAKES THAT I MADE IN TRYING TO DESENSITIZE MYSELF TO MY FEAR
- I started way too high on my exposure hierarchy with something that was overwhelming for me. The ride I described would probably be closer to the “most anxiety provoking” end of my hierarchy. It would have been more effective for me to start with the mini, kid-friendly rollercoaster next door and work my way up, building confidence and desensitizing myself along the way.
- I didn’t allow myself to experience the ride for long enough or frequently enough to get desensitized to my anxiety. Not only the was the intensity wrong, but I also didn’t give myself a chance to habituate to the feared experience.
If I had gone on a less anxiety-arousing ride, it would have helped to ride it repeatedly until I achieved a sense of mastery and even felt a little bit bored. I would be desensitized to ride, as it no longer triggered an intense an anxiety response. I could then move onto the next, slightly more anxiety-provoking ride on my hierarchy and repeat the process.
I eventually decided to make peace with my fear of amusement park rides (you can add bungee jumping and sky diving to that list too) because not doing them just didn’t stop me from living my full, valued life. But I have used some of these lessons in other areas of my life to face fears that were preventing me from accomplishing my goals.
WHY COMBAT YOUR ANXIETY
What do you do when avoiding certain things creates barriers to what matters to you in life? If anxiety is interfering with your life and stopping you from doing things that are meaningful to you, it’s time to combat your anxiety. Help is available to reduce your anxiety in a manageable and effective way.
If you are struggling to make changes on your own, consider reaching out to for professional support from a counsellor or a psychologist. Such support is often covered by extended benefit plans.