Exposure Therapy

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a form of CBT, and is aimed at maladaptive, excessive, or unreasonable anxiety. That is, for example, someone with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) will touch a doorknob, and they’ll think, “Oh, if I touch this doorknob, I might get a disease like HIV.” So again, the anxiety is out of proportion to the actual experience.

The intention in exposure therapy is to get your brain to signal you in a more accurate way. In an anxiety disorder, your anxiety system is giving you misinformation. It’s giving you information that you’re in danger when you’re,in fact, not in danger.

So exposure therapy — the idea is that we have you systematically confront your fears: go into those situations that are causing you anxiety. The idea is that you don’t leave that situation and you don’t do anything to protect yourself. It’s a very difficult treatment because your anxiety actually feels like it’s increasing in the moment, and it is increasing in the moment.

As that bad thing doesn’t happen, the feared consequence doesn’t happen, your brain starts to learn something new — “Oh, bad things don’t happen in the situation the way that I thought” — and your anxiety naturally starts to come down on its own. And that’s what we think is helpful in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

So with repeated exposures to those kinds of situations — where you go into the situation, you don’t escape, you don’t protect yourself — your anxiety will go down on its own, and you’ll have less anxiety in future similar situations.

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THREE STEPS TO EMOTIONAL FREEDOM

Step 1: Identify Your Negative Legacy Emotions

Life can be difficult to maneuver when struggling with emotions that hold us back from joy and happiness. Many people live with so much guilt, shame or anxiety that they become like fish that have been swimming in polluted water since escaping their eggs. A poor fish may have no idea that it is living under abnormal environmental conditions. Yet, it will feel the equivalent of fish joyfulness when it finally experiences fresh, clean water. This will be the same for you. There are three steps one can take to gain emotional freedom and move forward with confidence.

If your life seems constricted, boring or meaningless, your primitive emotions are probably zapping your vitality. To test this possibility, try imagining doing something different, and monitor your feelings for negative emotions. Imagine indulging yourself in a somewhat selfish fashion. Imagine sharing your opinion with friends, or taking a small risk to add excitement to your life.

When you try to imagine something new and daring, do you experience guilt, shame, anxiety or some combination? Practice identifying your negative emotions, and you will take your first step toward emotional freedom and a better life for you and the people whose lives you touch.

Step 2: Reject Any Compliance With These Emotions

Do you want to redecorate your home, build furniture, play music, draw or paint? Do you want to go to the theater or travel? Do you want to start a small business or volunteer to help others? Pursue a career you will love? Get a degree? Find a person with whom to share your life? Improve your marriage or your relationships with your children? Make a difference in the world? If you have failed to act on these desires, your demoralizing, negative legacy emotions are probably stopping you. They probably kick in whenever you consider or imagine asserting yourself toward fulfilling your wishes or dreams.

Instead of obediently complying with or caving in to these painful emotions, recognize and name them like enemies you plan to confront and overcome: “You are guilt! You are shame! You are anxiety! You are chronic anger or numbness!”

Take the second step toward emotional freedom by rejecting your painful, self-defeating emotions. Tell your negative emotions, “I will not be paralyzed by you. I will not let you misdirect me. I refuse to be controlled or compelled by you.”

Guilt, shame and anxiety behave like unwanted houseguests who repeatedly come back until we start saying no to them. They are emotional bullies who feel entitled to intimidate us. They push us harder and harder and take over our lives.
We need to remind ourselves that our most painful emotions have nothing to do with reality, with who we really are or with how we should act. Instead of consulting your negative legacy emotions, ask yourself what you want to do when you succeed in rejecting them. Then, begin to make decisions based on reason, mature ethics and love.

Our wretched feelings toward our lives and ourselves do not make us better people. Instead, they build anger and resentment and can drive some of our worst behaviors. They can blind us to our real misdeeds and make us unable to work toward becoming better people. Even if you believe that other people need these emotional inhibitions to make them behave, you can decide that you do not need them because you can use your emotional freedom to become more rational, ethical and loving.

Step 3: Triumph Over and Transcend These Emotions

The third step toward emotional freedom requires fulfilling your potential to become a source of love. For several decades now, this has been my working definition of love: Love is joyful awareness.

When your awareness of someone or something brings you happiness or joy, you are probably experiencing love. It can be your dog or cat, a person or place, nature, creativity, your chosen ideals or your concept of a higher power. If your awareness of this aspect of life makes you feel wonderfully glad to be alive, then you are experiencing love. This is what flowers, sunny days, starlit nights, streams and lakes, pets, music and art, marvelous ideas and higher purposes have in common: They can inspire us with joyful awareness, or love.

This is a simple, straightforward concept—that love is joyful awareness. It contrasts sharply with all the disappointing, self-defeating unhappy feelings and experiences in our lives.

Take a moment and imagine this for yourself: no more guilt, no more anxiety, no more shame, no more chronic anger and no more emotional numbness—or, at least, a lot less than you currently endure. Now, imagine filling your mind, heart and spirit with more love than you ever dreamed of. Imagine feeling joyful in the presence of others and of life itself. Imagine being happy.

These three steps to emotional freedom can change your life forever: Learn to identify guilt, shame and anxiety; learn to reject them; and, learn to fill yourself with love for other people, life in its many aspects and your greater purposes. Keep in mind that love is joyful awareness. If you are thinking about something or someone, and it makes you feel miserable, then it is probably not love. If you think about something or someone, and you light up inside with joy or happiness, that is almost definitely love.

You may have had so many negative experiences surrounding “love” that just thinking about it makes you succumb to painful emotions. Love may have initially attracted you to someone, and then it didn’t go well. This may have happened many times, leading you to feel frustrated and angry, as well as numb. Reexamine what happened, and you will find the problem was not with love. Your relationships were held back, distorted or corrupted by negative legacy emotions affecting you and your partners. How does this apply when one partner feels more love than the other, or when the two partners have differing views of what the relationship should be? Often, people suffer in relationships from feeling unloved or from irresolvable conflicts. Although rational compromises are made, one or both partners may feel disappointed, frustrated or bereaved. What matters is how each partner handles his or her inevitable painful feelings. If guilt, shame and anxiety, or chronic anger and numbing, complicate their responses, they will become bogged down with increasing feelings of helplessness. If these negative legacy emotions can be held off and helplessness rejected, then effective decision-making and emotional recovery are enhanced rather than impeded. Love motivates us to nurture, respect and protect whomever and whatever we love, from a special person to our spiritual relationship with life.

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