OCD, anxiety, and PTSD can sometimes feel like deeply debilitating mental conditions. Its sufferers often feel fine and relaxed until something triggers their worry, trauma, or negative feelings. This trigger then can make them freeze up or feel so overwhelmed it becomes difficult to even process anything else.
Having to go through life continually afraid of any reminders of trauma or worries can make it very difficult to function. An important part of healing and recovery is learning to lessen the power of these triggers, so that you can acknowledge these reminders of your worries, but continue to be present to other aspects of the world around you.
Fortunately, there is a treatment program that many people have found helpful in lessening the power of triggers. Here are some of the facts to help you determine if exposure therapy might be right for you.
Exposure therapy was developed by early behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapists, including Mary Cover Jones, Joseph Wolpe, and Stanley Rachman. It is a systematic way of confronting the triggering stimulus, and then learning how to respond to the resulting anxiety in helpful ways, until it's grip over your brain is lessened.
Working with a therapist, you start out with something only mildly triggering, and then making use of relaxation techniques to bring the anxiety levels down. With patience and sensitivity, you will gradually be exposed to more directly anxiety-producing stimulus, each time using relaxation until you are able to face it more calmly.
It can take a lot of time, and involve a lot hard work. Deliberately bringing up hard feelings you usually go out of your way to avoid can be very difficult, but know that it will get easier over time. It requires a sensitive therapist, and a great deal of self-awareness. You might be encouraged to rate your level of anxiety on a subjective scale from 1-10, to help you determine whether you should move forward or take a relaxation break.
The ideas behind exposure therapy began with Ivan Pavlov, and his discoveries of how the brain's responses to phenomena could be changed and conditioned. In Pavlov's most famous experiment, he was able to train dogs to salivate after ringing a bell. He rang the bell every time they were fed, and over time, the dogs came to associate the bell with food, to the point they responded to the bell as if it was food, the two stimuli intimately connected in the dogs' minds.
Triggers for phobias and traumas work in a very similar way. A certain object, surrounding, or sensation becomes intimately associated with a difficult emotion, to the point that you feel "thrown back." These seemingly insignificant triggers can be deeply destabilizing, because they remind you of all the worries you are facing. By confronting these triggers in a safe, controlled environment, the hope is you will gradually change your response to the stimulus, so it no longer induces the same anxiety.
There are a variety of methods that can be used to expose you to the stress-causing stimulus in a safe setting. Imaginal exposure involves mentally confronting a situation in your mind, while in vivo exposure involves facing a trigger "in the real word" more directly.
For example, someone anxious about speaking in public may either imagine speaking to others in a therapist's office, or actually go into the world and try to speak publicly. In either case, a great deal of caution should be exercised. If you try to rush the process, it can end up causing harm or increasing the traumatization.
You must be carefully aware of how you are being affected, knowing when you need to relax and stop. It is not something that is going to get better instantly. Over time, you will experience healing, as things get easier to face.
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