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Frequent misunderstandings about exposure

Just do it.

Exposure has to be done the right way, meaning that the individual engaging in exposure has to have the right perspective. If you decide to “just do it,” it is true that the task will be achieved and for some people in some circumstances that in and of itself is important. However, just facing the fear does not mean that you are willing to experience the thoughts, sensations, and behavioral urges that accompany the fear. If you continue to resist against those thoughts, sensations, and urges, whatever task you are attempting will feel very burdensome. Fighting against the urge to avoid and trying to ignore feared sensations and catastrophic thoughts will be exhausting. 

The right attitude to embrace during exposure is one where catastrophic thoughts, uncomfortable sensations, and the urge to avoid are all expected and understood as part of the process. They are not signs and they don’t have meaning. When they arrive, you don’t fight to make sure they don’t get worse. Rather the attitude towards your thoughts, feelings, and sensations is something like, “Oh. It’s cool that you’re here. I was expecting you. I’m going to continue doing what I was doing.” 

I already expose myself to what I fear.

The issue here is experiential avoidance. In this case, you have been embracing “just do it” for some time and you wouldn’t consider completely avoiding because you care too much about the task. However, if you interpret anxious thoughts, sensations, and urges as dangerous, then you can be sure that you are using experiential avoidances to keep your anxiety at bay. Examples of experiential avoidances include worrying, safety behaviors, reassurances, and checking. 

Exposure isn’t curing my anxiety disorder.

If you are engaging in exposure, but not getting relief from your anxiety, assessing your attitude toward the exposure is important. Are you using the exposure to make the anxiety go away? Do you have the hope that if you practice exposure enough then you won’t feel anxious anymore? 

Exposure should be used to learn the attitude of acceptance. It is a lifestyle, not a technique. If exposure exercises are not changing your attitude toward anxiety, they are unlikely to help you get long-term relief from it.