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How to Use Situational Exposure to Overcome Your Fears

Sometimes, when we want to avoid feeling anxious in certain situations, we try to stay away from those situations as much as we can. But here's the thing: if you never expose yourself to those situations, you don't get the chance to prove to yourself that your fears might not be true. And guess what? That can actually make your fears even stronger!

But if those situations are important to you and you want to feel better about them, you have to face your fears head-on in real situations. It's time to change how you feel about social activities and make them positive experiences. That's why this blog is here to help you get started on that journey. Read on to learn how you can begin to face your fears and turn those situations into something good for you.


Understanding Graded Exposure

Graded Exposure is a technique that involves facing your fears in a systematic and structured manner. Instead of jumping into the deep end right away, you start with smaller, more manageable steps and gradually work your way up. With graded exposure, you start with situations that are easier for you to handle and gradually work your way up to more challenging tasks. This method allows you to build confidence slowly, use the skills you've learned, become familiar with the situations, and confront your fears in each exposure exercise. By following this structured and repeated approach, there's a good chance that your anxiety about those situations will decrease over time.

Identifying Avoided Situations

The first step is to think about the situations that make you scared and that you try to stay away from. For example, some people might be afraid of going to places where there are lots of people or talking confidently to others. Write down these situations on a list. After making the list, you can rate how much distress or uneasiness you feel in each of those situations.

Use a scale from 0 to 100 to give them a rating.

  • 0 means you feel completely relaxed.

  • 25 to 49 means it's a mild distress: you can still handle the situation.

  • 50 to 64 means it's a moderate distress: you feel anxious, but you can still pay attention to what's happening around you.

  • 65 to 84 means it's a high distress: it's hard to focus, and you start thinking about how to escape.

  • 85 to 100 means it's an extreme distress: the anxiety becomes overwhelming, and you just want to get away from the situation.

Setting SMART Goals

Now that you have identified the situations and rated the distress levels, it's time to turn these avoided situations into achievable goals.

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Let's take an example: If you fear going to a mall and rate it as a distress level of 75, your SMART goal could be "To go out to a mall on a weekday with friends and stay there for at least 2 hours." This goal is clear, quantifiable, realistic, important to you, and has a specific timeframe.

Constructing a Path to Reach Your Goal

Now that you have a goal that is personal, realistic, achievable, measurable, and specific, it's time to plan your "graded exposure" program. This means breaking down your goal into smaller steps so that you can work towards your main goal little by little. Depending on how distressing your goal is (like if it has a high rating of 80+), you may need more steps compared to a goal with medium distress (like a rating of 40+). You can make smaller steps by changing WHO is involved, WHAT you do, WHEN you do it, WHERE you do it, and HOW long you do it for. Remember to follow the SMART criteria for each step.


Climbing the Steps Towards Your Goal

Now comes the exciting part—climbing the steps towards your goal! It's important to approach this process with patience and determination. Here are some strategies to help you progress through your situational exposure steps:

1. One Step at a Time:

Just like climbing a ladder, take one small step at a time. Start with the least difficult step from your list and work your way up. The primary focus at each step is to complete it successfully before moving on to the next one.

2. Repeat and Practice:

Repeat each step frequently and in close succession. By doing so, you become more comfortable with the situation before moving forward. It might take three or four attempts to feel at ease.

3. Utilize Coping Skills:

After completing or repeating a step, work through any unhelpful thoughts that may arise. Use relaxation techniques to unwind and manage any residual anxiety. Breathing exercises can be particularly helpful in reducing the physical response to anxiety.

4. Celebrate Your Progress:

Acknowledge the steps you've taken and celebrate your successes. Recognize the courage it took to face your fears and the progress you've made along the way. Pat yourself on the back and take pride in your accomplishments.

5. Embrace Setbacks:

It's essential to acknowledge that setbacks are a natural part of the journey towards overcoming anxiety. We all have good and bad days, and sometimes you might feel like you've taken a step backward when a situational exposure exercise doesn't go as well as you expected. If you're having trouble with a specific step, it can be helpful to take a "step back" and focus on the previous step again or create a step in between the one you've completed and the challenging one. That's why repeating steps is beneficial. Just remember, take it one step at a time.


Use a Diary to Record your Progress!

Keeping track of your journey is essential for staying motivated and reflecting on your progress. Consider using a diary to record each step you complete. Include the following information:

  • Describe the Step and the Situation: Write about what happened during the step and the situation you faced.

  • Expected Distress: Rate how much distress you thought you would feel on a scale of 0 to 100.

  • Actual Distress: Rate the actual level of distress you experienced during the step.

  • Outcome: Share if you completed the step and mention any helpful skills you used. If you face difficulties, explain them and write about how you can prepare for the next time.

If you encounter difficulties with a particular step, consider taking a step back and revisiting the previous step or creating an intermediate step between the completed one and the challenging one. This allows you to build your confidence and gradually work your way up again. Remember, progress is not always linear, and setbacks provide valuable learning opportunities.

Seeking Professional Guidance

While the step-by-step approach outlined here can be helpful, it's important to acknowledge that everyone's journey is unique. If you find yourself struggling with situational exposure exercises, don't hesitate to seek professional guidance. A qualified psychotherapist can provide expert support, tailor the approach to your specific needs, and help you navigate any challenges that arise along the way.

By embracing graded exposure and facing your fears in a systematic manner, you can reclaim control over anxiety-provoking situations. Remember to start small, utilize coping skills, and celebrate your achievements. Each step you take brings you closer to your goal of turning social activities into positive experiences. If setbacks occur, don't be discouraged—view them as opportunities to learn and grow. With the right mindset and support, you can overcome anxiety and live a fulfilling life.



About The Author

Natasha Filntissis is a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Western University. She is a passionate advocate for mental health, & believes in the importance of taking care of one's physical and mental well-being. In addition to her academics, Natasha was also a former semi-professional soccer player. Her favourite self-care activities include journaling, practicing yoga, and working out. Currently, she is working with children with Autism in 1:1 and group settings. Natasha intends to pursue a Masters degree, & her ultimate goal is to inspire and educate others about the value of mental health and self-care to lead a fulfilling life.

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