Dr. Levy's CBT Blog
Insights on Well-Being, Contentment, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Anxiety and fear are quite different. To illustrate the difference I normally share a concrete example. Let's say I open my front door and there is a wild tiger right there. I will be terribly afraid. There is a clear and imminent danger I can pinpoint, thus leading to the fear. However, if I step out of my front door, hear a noise or see some movement in the grass, and think that there might be a tiger in there somewhere, odds are I will be feeling quite anxious. I think there might be a threat somewhere, only I cannot see it. I can imagine it.
Anxiety is a response to perceived threats that come to us either in the form of thoughts (a story) or images. Because we don’t like the feeling of anxiety, we often avoid thinking about those threats and try to block out the troublesome images. This helps reduce the anxiety in the immediate short-term. But long-term, it is still there. That pesky feeling of foreboding, a tightness in your chest, a lump in your throat. If it’s in your head and it has a negative emotional valence, it will come back at some point. That makes sense, right? I’s your brain trying to keep you safe by reminding you often of the dangers around you.
How can you conquer that anxiety? There are several methods in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety treatment. The most effective one is exposure therapy. This is an approach where, figuratively, you get out of the house, go to where the noises and movement in the grass are, look behind the bushes, and find out that there isn’t a tiger there after all – it’s a kitty cat. To get to this liberating a-ha moment, we do need the courage to be willing to face the tiger.
For some types of anxiety such as driving or public speaking, we can actually go out there and do exposure exercises in real life relatively simply. But other times, if our fears involve imagined situations and outcomes that we can’t replicate in the real world, then we have to use the tool of ‘imaginal exposure.’ Imaginal exposure, as the name suggests, involves immersing ourselves in this worst-case scenario fear of how things can turn out badly. For example, if I am constantly anxious about having a deadly disease, I can enter a mental world where that actually happens. If I am concerned about my children having a terrible accident, I can make that true in my head.
Imaginal exposure scripts are short stories that we can write laying out what would happen if our worst fears came true. We add what happens in the immediate aftermath and what happens over the long run. These scripts are usually sad and dark because, well, our anxieties are sad and dark. Once an anxiety-provoking imaginal exposure script is written, exposure therapy involves reading that script over and over and over, several times a day for several days, recording the level of distress that it brings up. The objective is to get you habituated to the facts and feelings in the script. After reading a story a few hundred times, it gets boring. Boring is the opposite of anxiety-provoking. Boring is good.
Of course, you’ll be well served to have a therapist support you through this unpleasant but highly effective and necessary process. Any well-trained CBT therapist should be able to hold your hand and help you feel safe and cared for as you go face your tigers. Happy hunting!
Dr. Daniele Levy is a licensed psychologist offering CBT via Teletherapy from Menlo Park, CA. Her background uniquely combines leading edge training in behavioral sciences with deep expertise coaching and mentoring working professionals in dynamic organizations.