How to use Exposure Therapy for Overcoming Social Anxiety

social anxiety

Exposure therapy is one of the most common therapies used today. It is a treatment for many different anxieties and phobias. In this post I will discuss how to use exposure therapy for overcoming social anxiety.

What is exposure therapy?

The main goal of exposure therapy is to expose ourselves to situations that elicit anxiety. And by exposing ourselves to these situations in a gradual and systematic way, we can slowly habituate to environments that once caused us great fear and panic.

Usually, the individual first comes up with a “hierarchy of behaviors/situations” that cause them to feel anxious. For example, someone who is trying to overcome social anxiety may have a hierarchy like:

  • Going out in public (Low Anxiety)
  • Making eye contact (Low-Medium Anxiety)
  • Saying “Hi” to a stranger (Low-Medium Anxiety)
  • Having a short conversations with a stranger (Medium Anxiety)
  • Being interviewed for a job (Medium-High Anxiety)
  • Talking to a boss (High Anxiety)
  • Approaching a good-looking guy/girl at a bar (High Anxiety)
  • Going on a first date (Very High Anxiety)
  • Giving a public speech (Very High Anxiety)

Everyone’s hierarchy of behaviors/situations is going to be different depending on the individual and the type of anxiety. Therefore, it’s very important that you take the time to systematically break down your anxiety in a way that works best for you.

For example, if you start by exposing yourself to situations that elicit high levels of anxiety (like a public speech), then you’re probably just going to get frustrated and give up.

Therefore, it’s crucial that you start with situations that elicit low levels of anxiety first, then – once you overcome those – you can gradually move on to more difficult ones.

By doing this in a step-by-step way, you slowly condition yourself to these new situations and behaviors. They begin to become more familiar – you may even realize they weren’t “as bad” as you first thought they were. Your social anxiety diminishes more and more, and one day you look back and forget what it was ever like to be the “old, anxious you.”

What’s the “right exposure?”

It’s very important that you get the “right kind” of exposure. Because if you go into these situations without a clear goal in mind, then often you end up just making your social anxiety worse.

“Exposing yourself” to a situation doesn’t just mean walking in a room and standing their idly. You have to ask yourself, “How do I want to act in this situation?” Because if you expose yourself to new situations, but keep acting in the same old ways, then you’re just re-conditioning yourself to continue being anxious. You’re sort of exposing yourself to the situation, but you’re also partially avoiding it. Thus, you’re not really exposing yourself to your anxiety head-on.

For example, if you walk into a bar with the intention to meet new people, but you don’t actually approach anyone, then you’re just re-conditioning yourself to go into a bar, stand by yourself, and be really nervous.

If that’s your strategy, then it won’t matter how many bars you expose yourself to – you’ll still always be partially avoiding what you really want. Deep-down you may think you are trying something new, but you’re actually avoiding your social anxiety, which is the opposite of exposure therapy.

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