Exposure Therapy, aaaargh…
The most dreaded part of any phobic’s treatment and the part I most often hear about when being treated by traditional psychology. It’s the time when you have to actually face whatever has been scaring you, causing anxiety, or making you have panic attacks.
But, wait… just for a moment. Are you doing everything you can to make exposure therapy quick, easy and relatively painless?
Could visualization help?
My answer, and the answer from thousands of my own clients worldwide is a resounding “YES”.
Some people aren’t afraid of anything and go through life without anxiety, shrug off bad news and thrive from stress. As the saying goes, they are ‘as tough as old boots’. Over the last few decades experts have devoted hours to understanding why some people are more optimistic, fearless, and hardy than others.
There are a few obvious reasons like upbringing, possibly some genetics, diet, and brain structure which play a role, but none of those things damn you to a life of uncontrollable anxiety, fear and hopelessness. So what do the successful people do differently?
For years people have done visualization exercises for the purpose of relaxation, the standard one being to visualize yourself on a beach feeling the warmth on your skin. As relaxation techniques they are very effective for most people, resulting in a lowering of blood pressure and pulse rate, and helping relieve muscle tension. Most people report feeling calmer.
This is great for general anxiety, stress and worry but only of limited help when it comes to tackling specific anxiety or phobias. Relaxation is good and obviously it’s better to tackle a specific issue with a relaxed body than with a tense one, but state of mind is very important and the trigger of the phobic situation, be it entering an airport, seeing the elevator doors or hearing the subway train approaching, can bring all of that relaxation crashing down.
So what can be done to make a different kind of visualization work for you?
Let’s examine one of my favourite options.
When it comes to tackling a specific issue, sun-kissed beaches are probably irrelevant on their own. Instead of leading your mind into relaxing in an imaginary situation why not combine that relaxation with imagining the real issue.
After getting yourself into the most relaxed, calm and comfortable physical state possible, you can then lock that great feeling in by using an anchor technique – nipping a finger and thumb together or taking 3 deep breaths.
Then, while physically relaxed, actually shift your thoughts into having yourself doing whatever it is you have a phobia of, or whatever situation makes you feel anxious… but this time you’re having yourself do it in a calm, relaxed and perhaps even a happy fashion as if it were a “normal” occurence.
Let’s say your anxiety is triggered by travelling in an elevator, why not visualize yourself leaving your house, arriving at a tall building, calmly walking over to the elevator, pressing the button to summon it.
Waiting for the doors to open, stepping in and watching the doors close, all the time activating your good feelings by taking those deep breaths or nipping that finger and thumb together. Then imagine stepping out at your destination floor.
The following steps can make the visualization work more powerfully.
1, Visualising in the “first person”, seeing the situation from your own eyes, don’t see yourself doing it as if you were an actor on a movie screen. Your mind will see it as someone else, not as you.
2, Use all of your senses. Think about everything that you might see, hear, feel and smell and recreate them in your mind. Think also of things that are not important to the situation but which you might hear anyway, people talking in the background, mobile phones ringing etc. Also do this with sights, smells and textures.
3, If you find visualization hard persevere, it takes time and patience to undo what your mind has constructed, but rest assured, results will come.
4, If you find it impossible to visualize being calm and happy in the phobic situation then break down the visualization into parts. Spend some days becoming calm looking at the elevator from the outside, take as long as you need. Build up to riding in the elevator as slowly as you want. Eventually you will get to be calm and happy in the situation you used to fear.
5, When it feels right, and you’ve practiced visualising for a week or so, go for it in real life!
Let me know how it goes.