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Exposure Therapy

When we feel anxious or intimidated by something, an immediate reaction is often to avoid. Avoiding something in the short term can feel great! The thing that was stressing us is temporarily gone… Until it pops back up at a later date.

Exposure therapy is a type of psychological treatment that involves gradually and safely confronting a person with the things or situations that they fear or avoid. The goal of exposure therapy is to help individuals overcome their anxiety, phobias, or traumatic experiences by exposing them to these triggers in a controlled and supportive environment. By repeatedly facing their fears, individuals can learn to tolerate and manage their emotional and physical reactions, and gradually reduce their anxiety and avoidance behaviours over time.

Have you ever really wanted to do something but have felt too frightened to give it a go? This following example might be a useful framework to consider.

My rescue dog Marley was scared of water when I got him 5 years ago. I genuinely thought that all dogs could just naturally swim. Not Marley, as soon as he got close to any type of water, he would just panic. 

As time has gone by, he’s started to get braver. After I worked out he was petrified of water, I found something he absolutely loves. The beach. When he’s at the beach her runs around like a little puppy. When he started to get a little more daring he would paddle in a really shallow part of the water. Over the last 5 years he’s taken gradual steps to reach where he is today. Today he accompanies me on my paddle board. He jumps onto the board, with his life jacket wrapped around him (seriously this dog sinks like a stone) and enjoys himself on the different Scottish lochs he gets to explore. 

This hasn’t happened overnight. It has taken time, patience and creating a safe environment for him to allow himself to gradually move through the following different steps – 

  • Being on the beach 
  • Running next to the water at the beach 
  • Watching other dogs play in the sea 
  • Playing with other dogs in the shallow part of the sea 
  • Chasing a ball into the sea
  • Surviving a wave coming over his head and realising he can swim
  • Playing on his own in water 
  • Watching me going SUP boarding 
  • Going on the SUP board on land 
  • Getting on the SUP board in the water 
  • Falling off the SUP board and again seeing he can swim. 

When it comes to anxiety the most natural thing is to stop doing the thing that makes us anxious. However, what can be really useful is breaking things down into steps and little bit by little bit, face your anxiety. Marley didn’t jump straight into the deep end, but he also didn’t run completely away from the thing that made him anxious. He has learnt to tolerate his distress and now he’s enjoying his new favourite activity

Author: Robyn Spice

Psychotherapist MPhil BA Dip (Reg MBACP)


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