Facing Your Fears: Exposure

An important step in managing anxiety involves facing feared situations, places or objects. It is normal to want to avoid the things you fear. However, avoidance prevents you from learning that the things you fear are not as dangerous as you think.

What is Exposure?
The process of facing fears is called exposure. Exposure involves gradually and repeatedly going into feared situations until you feel less anxious. Exposure is not dangerous and will not make the fear worse. And after a while, your anxiety will naturally lessen. 

How is exposure helpful?
Starting with situations that are less scary, you work your way up to facing things that cause you a great deal of anxiety. Over time, you build up confidence in those situations and may even come to enjoy them. This process often happens naturally for example, when people learn to ride a bike, skate, or drive a car.  Exposure is one of the most effective ways of overcoming fears. However, it takes some planning and patience.

How do you practice exposure?

Step 1. Make a list

Make a list of situations, places or things that you fear.

Helpful tips:

  • Include lots of situations, some that are easy to face and some that are hard
  • Group similar fears together
  • Remember you are not alone, here is a list of common fears:
    • Being around other people
    • Trying new things
    • Talking to unfamiliar people
    • Public speaking
    • Animals
    • Insects
    • Needles
    • Heights
    • Germs
    • Driving
    • Crowded places

Step 2. Build a fear ladder

Rank your list from the least scary to the scariest. You can do this by rating how much fear you have for each situation on the list, from “0” (No fear) to “10” (Extreme fear). Once you have rate each situation, use the Fear Ladder form to make a final list. You can create different fear ladders with lots of different steps for each of your goals. See examples of Fear Ladders for some ideas on how to build your own.

Step 3. Facing fears (exposure)

Now that you have your fear ladders, pick one to start working on. On that fear ladder, start with the least scary situation and repeatedly engage in that activity until you start to feel less anxious doing it.

Helpful tips:

  • Expect to feel anxious
  • Plan your exposure exercise in advance. Identify what you are going to do and when you are going to do it
  • Spend as much time as you can on one activity – anxiety takes a lot of energy and at some point it will “run out of gas” and you’ll realize you’re safe. This can take a long time (up to 30 minutes or more). See the Facing Fears form, which can help you though this.
  • Once you achieve an activity with little or no anxiety, celebrate your victory and move on to the next thing on your list.

Step 4. Practice

It is important to practice on a regular basis. Some steps can be practiced daily, while others can only be done once in a while. However, the more often you practice the faster the fear will fade. Done forget to maintain the gains that you have made. Even if you have become comfortable doing something, it’s important to keep exposing yourself to it form time to time. And finally, re-rate your fear ladder every once in a while.

Step 5. Reward brave behavior

It’s not easy facing fears. Reward yourself when you do and celebrate your victories! It may be helpful to use specific rewards as a motivation to achieve a goal. For example, plan to purchase something for yourself (clothes, book, new tech toy) or engage in a fun activity (go out with friends, go out for dinner)


This material was modified from and with the permission of AnxietyBC

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