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One of my first questions to a professor in my earliest IOCDF BTTI (Exposure Therapy training) at Massachusetts General Hospital was, “What happens if someone actually gets sick after a contamination exposure?” I haven’t forgotten the simplicity of the answer that went something like this: “People get sick all the time. Yes, that might create some additional hesitancy to face exposures at first, but you have an incredible opportunity for learning.” Life involves not only facing bad things that don't happen, but also bad things that do.
Exposure Therapy involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. In the end, it can relieve a lot of suffering.
During this global pandemic of COVID-19, people actually are getting sick. One might not think the principles of exposure therapy would apply (i.e., "Don't you do exposure therapy for risks that don't happen?"). Quite the contrary. I believe exposure therapy provides one of the best evidence-based ways forward, helping us stand up to fear we need to squarely face. So today, whether you have a disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19.
This guide, "Thriving Mental Health Alongside COVID-19," is dedicated to my clients and the IOCDF and provides a thorough summary of the main steps of Exposure Therapy with me, with key tips for general mental health. May you be enriched by this!
Whether you have a mental disorder or not, there is an opportunity for learning and growth in the face of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2). Now, more than ever, we need stable footing to stand on. People go to every extreme. You don't have to. Mental health is about being grounded in reality, insomuch as we can grasp it.
Getting sick will happen. Yes, people die. Relationships break up and fail. Businesses go under. We might get it wrong. However...many people can experience health. Some people live with purpose and to the full (which is not the same as perfect). Relationships can be incredible. Businesses can thrive. We can get things right.
When I utilize the method of Exposure Therapy in counseling (a subset of Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), it involves the systematic confrontation of fearful triggers while reducing and eliminating fearful, pathological responses. It is Gold Standard treatment for OCD & Phobias, and is a first line treatment for all Anxiety Disorders and PTSD. What we think happens is that relearning occurs, which for most increases confidence and decreases disruption in life when they follow the treatment. Exposure, then, gives us two opportunities:
2. To learn we can face it anyway.
Its principles connect us to some of the best of life: face the thing you have reason to face; gain the opportunity to live more fully.
This guide is a very brief summary of the main points of the exposure therapy process with me, particularly with clients who have OCD and Anxiety. Many of my clients actually are faring better in this crisis than people I have talked to and seen in the general public- and why wouldn't they?! They've been training and learning- and now it's game-time.
Click "Read More" for a Summary
The Myth of Disappearing Distress. If I do the right things, I won't have to face suffering, right?
It's easy for me as a therapist to exhort my clients to stay focused on the prize DESPITE the distress they feel. How easy it is to get off track! And while it's also easy for me to tell someone else this, it can be very cumbersome to do in practice. I, too, struggle to keep focused when challenges hit. But I'm always best prepared when I lean on my team: #support #faith #accountability #truth.
In Vivo Exposure
Directly facing feared objects or situations, examples include:
Getting on a flight, touching a doorknob that feels “contaminated,” not going back to check a lock, or going to a social gathering.
Good exposure attempts to match the content and detail of a person's fear as close as possible. So, for example, if a person fears “going crazy” in a social setting, the best exercise will be working up to facing that, not just exposing to the thought or word. On the other hand, if the fear is that a person will have inappropriate impulses (to harm, sexually, etc.), sitting with the intrusive thought and being present will serve best.
Imaginal exposure involves accessing the content of fears and anxieties through cognitive means. For example, a fear that someone will fail, make the wrong decision, harm someone, die, or choose the wrong relationship are not accessed by activating these life occurrences. They are addressed imaginally.
There are many ways to practice Exposure imaginally, but the most common are writing scripts, stories, listening to recordings, watching videos, or using visualization.
To be clear, Imaginal exposure often is the most confusing and hardest to grasp of exposure practices, as it seems to be creating negative thoughts or “bringing” unrealistic and negative thoughts on- the seeming antithesis of most of psychology and cognitive therapy. But what is really done here is only facing what a person is already experiencing, thinking and feeling.
Intentionally bringing up physical sensations that are feared, such as:
Heart racing, shortness of breath, sweaty palms.
Ways to do this when a person's health allows are breathing through a cocktail straw, breathing rapidly, or sitting up quickly.
Virtual Reality (VR) Exposure
With the advent of new technology, we have a recently emerging type of exposure. Some may class Virtual Reality into imaginal exposure, but it can be seen as a cross between in vivo (situational) and imaginal. This is especially helpful with treating disorders such as Flying Phobia, where the access to an actual plane and flight to practice can be cost-prohibitive and difficult.
What is Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that is practiced in Behavioral and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It is indicated as a first line treatment for a number of disorders such as
Exposure therapy helps clients to systematically confront fearful stimuli along with changing fearful responses. This relearning increases confidence and decreases disruption in life. Over time, discomfort and fear typically decreases through active engagement rather than avoidance, suppression, neutralization, or ritualization.
The evidence base is very strong for its use and effectiveness, though it is currently only applied a minority of the time in clinical settings.
How Do You Do Exposure Therapy?
The principles of exposure may be simple, but the specifics- personalized to any one individual- involve many working parts.
Did your anxiety increase over flying after news of the engine failure on Southwest Flight 1380? Even a little?
I have booked plane tickets twice since the incident in mid-April 2018, and when choosing seats, I hovered precariously as I decided whether to select my favored window seat, or if I go for the "safer" aisle. My wife mentioned slight concern over the window seat because of the tragedy that occurred.
Working closely with the CBT treatment of Anxiety Disorders and OCD, I knew the moment I read the news- first about engine failure and the sad death of a wife and mom, Jennifer Riordan, and more recently the loss of cabin pressure and a window crack on a separate flight- there would be increased fear and anxiety about flying. Why? Flying commercially is statistically more safe in the U.S. than it’s ever been. Even with these incidents. Even with 100 of these incidents.
The fear is natural, and even normative, to some extent. It makes sense that we’d instinctually be a bit curious about our well-being in a metal tube soaring at 500 mph with tons of jet fuel propelling it. Even the possibility of flight has been denied in most of human history.
But what about when fear starts to cause problems ? Affect choices? Leads to avoidance of life pursuits and goals? Or becomes one more in a cumulative list of anxieties and worries? One way to be 100% certain that you will increase your fear load is by giving the aforementioned flight(s) unrealistic credit. By associating personalized, catastrophic meaning to a situation that is one of the safest things you can do (safer than riding a bike), a distortion has taken place. Some disorders, such as Specific Phobias, PTSD or OCD, make it pathologically difficult (i.e., neurobiologically) to change how one feels and thinks, regurgitating fear quicker than your vertigo-experiencing seatmate with their airline-branded “barf” bag.
With Flight 1380 being the first fatality on a U.S. passenger airline since February 2009 (over 9 years), flying on a plane is a remarkably secure form of travel. Unconvinced? Check out Forbes’ mining of some reputable stats.
Here’s the thing; education and stats are helpful, but only go so far. Fear is more than a reasoning thing- or in neuro terms, more than a prefrontal cortex (PFC) thing. Fear is an emotional thing. An amygdala thing. A learned response and genetic thing, along with a pervasive attitude and decision thing. It’s something that can destroy, harm, and erode, or it’s something that can be used in its rightful context, and set aside when not useful (e.g., PTSD treatment where a person can balance both safe and smart decisions, while facing disordered fear, so they can live life more fully).
So if you’re like most people who need a bit more than statistical education to counter anxiety and become stress resilient, remember this:
What you think and believe (cognitively) is vitally important.
What you do (behaviorally) is vitally important.
Your health and well-being are intricately tied to these. Small decisions today can lead to a long-term impact. For many of us, the greatest threat we face today is fear. So I chose the window seat.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
A Psychotherapists' thoughts on healthy living.
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