METHOD OF DEALING WITH FEARS/PHOBIAS: desensitization through graded exposure
Desensitization through graded exposure is a method that can be used to help manage your anxiety and overcome fear. Let us say that there is a particular situation in which you always feel anxious and/or afraid. For example, perhaps you have a fear (or phobia) concerning the use of an elevator. Desensitization through graded exposure involves you actually confronting your feared situation directly. The idea is to train yourself to feel relaxed and safe in response to your anxiety-provoking situation. It is not possible to be relaxed and anxious at the same time. So, the result you want is to learn to remain in the anxiety-provoking situation and stay calm at the same time.
I will give you an example of how desensitization through graded exposure might work. Let us use the example of fear of using an elevator. Such a phobia is the result of the process of sensitization…this involves associating anxiety with a particular situation. Perhaps you once panicked while in a lift. It is likely that you then made a strong association between being in a lift and high anxiety. After that, just thinking about a lift might make you feel anxious. You then start avoiding going in lifts because of the fear of experiencing anxiety or panic again.
One might start with just looking at an elevator coming and going. When you can do that while remaining calm you go to a slightly more difficult step e.g standing in a stationary lift with a support person. When you can do that while remaining calm you make the situation slightly more difficult e.g you travel up or down one floor with a support person…and so on until you can travel on a lift alone without your support person and remain calm.
Examples of fears/phobias your counsellor/psychotherapist can help you to overcome using desensitization through graded exposure are:
fear of spiders or snakes;
fear riding in elevators;
shopping in a supermarket;
being in crowded places;
travelling alone on a train during rush hour;
fear of talking before a large audience.
a young woman with claustrophobia in an elevator
Watching a spider crawling on the bedsheets
To learn more about desensitization through graded exposure see:
“Suddenly, out of the blue, I felt a sense of dread and fear. My head felt strange; I thought I might keel over. I could feel that my breathing was fast and shallow; I could not take a full, deep breath. I feared things were going to get beyond my control. My hands were shaking. I felt urges to run to the toilet. I could feel my heart pounding. Disconcerting “waves” were travelling along my arms and legs. My fear and agitation increased as I could not get things under control. I felt panicky. I was wondering whether I had some serious medical condition; that perhaps I might die. The intensity of the panic increased. I felt terrified. Then I felt something that is hard to describe; like a disconnection between my head and my body. My fear of not being able to regain control dramatically increased…”
Panic attacks are episodes of intense fear that can occur “out of the blue” without any apparent cause. Panic attacks can be extremely frightening. If they are recurring then there is a tendency to develop “anticipatory anxiety” or apprehension between panic attacks focusing on the fear and dread of having another panic attack.
The experience of having a panic attack varies from person to person and from one attack to the next. Thus the example above is just that, an example.
Generally, a panic attack involves a period of intense, overwhelming fear. Some of the following symptoms develop abruptly:
feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
trembling or shaking
nausea or abdominal distress
heart palpitations, pounding heart or increased heart rate
sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
a feeling of choking
chest discomfort or pain
numbness or tingling sensations in the arms or feet
feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
fear of losing control
fear of going crazy
fear of dying
If you believe you are suffering from recurring panic attacks talk to your GP to ensure that you do not have any medical condition resulting in your symptoms. Seek help then to manage your panic attacks by talking to a counsellor.
Panic disorder can develop. This involves a person experiencing an unexpected panic attack and then developing substantial anxiety about the possibility of having another panic attack or about the implications of the attack or its consequences. The person thinks that each panic attack is a sign of incapacitation or impending death.
Many people with panic disorder develop agoraphobia as a consequence of severe, unexpected panic attacks. They develop avoidance behaviour. They might stay at home and avoid going out of the house, or, when away from home ensuring they are in a place where rapid escape is possible. Typical situations that agoraphobic people avoid are shopping centres, trains, buses, being far from home, crowds, elevators, supermarkets and tunnels. This avoidance behaviour is an attempt to cope with unexpected panic attacks. Being agoraphobic is very debilitating. If you think you may be agoraphobic seek help now.
To read more about panic attacks, panic disorder and agoraphobia see:
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