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How to do Exposure Therapy for Fears and Anxiety – Break the Anxiety Cycle 27/30

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In this post, you will learn how to do exposure therapy for fears and anxiety.

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Exposure Therapy For Fears And Anxiety

This is part of my 30-part series, How to Break the Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days and you can buy the course at a link down in the description. Now in this video I’m not going to teach you an anxiety hack or trick I’m going to teach you the number one most powerful way to decrease anxiety as backed by research.

I’m going to teach you the six steps to kicking fear’s butt by using exposure therapy. Now if you want to learn to beat anxiety one of the most powerful things you can do is learn the skill of facing your fears.

And this is a skill that you can learn but if when you hear, “Just face your fears!” That seems both too simple and too difficult at the same time and you’re like ready to turn this video off.

Please stay with me for just like one more minute because I’m going to break this skill down into bite-sized chunks that you’ll work through little by little and I’ll show you how I do it myself with my fear of falling.  

I have climbed off and on almost my entire life but I’ve never overcome my fear of falling. I used to climb four times a week in grad school and I used to do climbing trips every chance I got. But even though I was a really strong climber, I would climb really difficult routes on top rope, I would climb like eight grades lower when I was on lead, which is where I might fall.

I would climb way below my capabilities in order to avoid any chance of falling. Now pause that for just a second because in order to understand how I’m going to do some exposure therapy on myself, let me step back and explain some terms here.

There’s a couple of different types of climbing. So, when you top rope the rope is already fixed at the top of the climb. So that means that when you fall you only sink a couple of inches. But when you lead climb, you have to take the rope up with you as you go and hook yourself to the wall with carabiners. So, this means that as you climb above your bolt, if you fall, you fall double the length of how high you climbed plus slack and rope stretch.

So if I’m 5 feet above my bolt I’m going to fall 10 feet plus rope stretch which

means maybe like 15t fall. Now as long as you follow the rules like tying in

correctly baying correctly using correct gear,  climbing is actually very very safe.

Like especially in the gym.

So, with top roping I have never been injured and I’ve climbed thousands of times. With lead climbing in a fall you have the potential to like twist an ankle or get a bruise but we aren’t talking like life threatening climbing here.

That’s not the type of climbing I do I am I’m not free soloing like Alex Honnold. I’m just scared of like that feeling of falling on a rope and because I am afraid of taking a lead fall, I’ve avoided doing really cool routes that I was capable of.

I’ve missed out on the physical and mental growth that comes from stretching myself in that way.  And then I’ve also had to rely on other climbers to set routes for me which has limited me in a lot of ways.  

So, lead climbing totally safe feels really dangerous, I’ve avoided it. This is a normal part of anxiety right it’s normal to want to avoid things that make you anxious but avoidance locks your brain into this cycle of increasing anxiety. And then it also avoidance prevents you from learning that the things you fear aren’t as dangerous as you think.

So the more that I’ve avoided taking lead falls, the more scared I’ve become. Also, back when I used to climb a lot, I was more comfortable lead climbing, but not, since having a bunch of kids, I haven’t really done any leading in about 6 years, so that avoidance has made me more anxious about lead climbing. When I got back to climbing, I was even nervous about toproping. 

But, science has shown us that our brains are really flexible, they adapt and change depending on what we do, and psychology has developed a really effective way to naturally decrease anxiety called “exposure therapy” you face your fears very gradually, and by doing so, your brain learns that you are actually safe and decreases your anxiety levels. 

Exposure therapy is a research backed effective treatment for phobias (fears of situations), PTSD (fears of memories), Panic Attacks (fear of body sensations) and OCD- (various fears of thoughts, contamination, or causing harm to others, etc.). But I”m going to use it for my fear of falling. 

Now you may have tried exposure in the past and it didn’t work- that might be for a couple of reasons- you may have tried to jump into something too scary too soon, which might have put you into the panic zone and actually been re-traumatizing- only reinforcing the fear. Or perhaps you only faced your fear once or twice, but when it still bothered you you didn’t continue. This is my problem with fear of falling, I just haven’t practiced it enough, and it’s been a long time since I did fall. 

When exposure is done correctly it can be very effective at overcoming fears and anxiety. Facing your fears is often most effective when you start with things that are less scary, and work your way up. As you work the process, you build up a belief in your ability to do hard things and you might even learn that you enjoy the things you once feared. So, let’s test it out. 

How To Do It

Step 1. Choose a fear to work on. I’m going to pick my fear of falling on lead. 

Step 2: Make a personal goal i.e. Remember why you care about this, focus on why this matters to you more that avoiding your fears. It’s because you care about living your life. whether it’s your job or your loved ones, or your sense of self- you care about something more than you care about anxiety. Your motivation here is essential to your progress. Make it super clear. Make a vision board or write your goal down in a place you can see it every day. Tell others about your goal so they can support you. If you overcame this fear, how will your life improve?  So if you’re afraid of dogs, you might say “Visit my grandchildren who have a dog in their home”. 

I want to get good at falling so that I can lead up really cool routes. Here are pictures of some routes I’d like to do (betagraphic). Betagraphic is this amazing route in my home canyon, it’s totally within my ability, but I’ve neer led it because I didn’t want to feel scared.  I want to be able to climb at my potential and not waste so much energy overgripping when I’m scared. I don’t want to have to rely on someone else to lead up the routes that I want to climb. I want to watch as my fear levels decrease and my confidence increases.  

So here’s how we break this down and make it happen. 

Step 3. Build a ladder for your fear.(Psychologists like big words to make them feel special so they call this an “Exposure Hierarchy”). So make a list of all the aspects of this fear. 

  • 1- Falling on toprope
  • 2- Resting on the rope at the top of a route
  • 1.5 Watching videos of people taking falls on lead, studying how to learn to fall correctly
  • 3- Climbing a lead route that is well within my capabilities (and not falling)
  • 4- taking a 1 foot fall on lead
  • 5- taking a 3  fall on lead on an overhanging route
  • 6- Taking a 2 fall on lead on a vertical route
  • 8-Taking a 5-10 foot- long fall on lead, on a vertical route
  • 9-Taking a long fall while clipping, on a vertical route
  • 9- Falling unexpectedly outdoors on poor trad gear /Taking a whipper/getting really runout on gear and falling

Rate each situation on a scale from 0-10, with 10 being the most frightening. 

Now the hard part of this is figuring out the tiny steps that are at like a level 1, 2, or 3. This is the part most people get wrong, they just try to jump into the deep end of their fears and they get freaked out and re-traumatize and then escape and their brain re-enforces that anxiety- actually increasing the anxiety response.

When I first started thinking about this goal, I could only imagine facing my fears by taking those long scary falls, so I wasn’t super motivated to make this video- but when I started to write it down, I felt a lot more confident because I realized I can start with just 1-2 ft falls. 

 If you want to successfully overcome your fears-then you need to get really creative at making these tiny steps. This can include watching examples of other people doing it, pretending to play with characters facing their fears, and imagining yourself facing your fear. 

So, Write down as many tiny steps as you can think of that will help you reach that goal. Let me give you some examples: 

  • If you’re afraid of dogs: watching movies about dogs, looking at pictures of dogs, looking at a dog through a window, being in a house with a very small calm dog, 
  • If you’re afraid of getting a vaccine: watching a video of a needle, watching an apple being injected, touching a needle
  • If you have social anxiety: record yourself talking through an imaginary social situation, listen to that recording, say “hi” to a coworker, then move up to things like “ask a coworker how their weekend was” 

In addition to breaking tasks down, you can also add in support. In the beginning stages, facing our fears can be easier with a friend, family member, or therapist to support us, then with time we can do things with more independence. 

So as you make your ladder, It’s important to have a mix of tasks that are mildly anxiety provoking, somewhat anxiety provoking, and some steps that seem out of reach right now.  

Step 4: Facing Fears- Exposure

OK, so let’s do this! We’re going to start on the bottom rung of the ladder, begin to repeatedly engage in that activity- So I’ve already started toproping twice a week with friends, the first few times I rested at the top of the route, I was kinda nervous, but now I’m calm about that. 

So now I’m going to lead climb for the first time in 6 years. But I’m choosing a route that I most likely won’t fall on. 

So now I’m going to start taking very short lead falls, over and over again. Today my goal is to take 10 2 foot lead falls. Counterintuitively, fallinkg over an overhang is actually safer than falling on a vertical area. 

(Footage of me falling, talking about how it feels, my heart rate, my beginning SUD and my ending SUD) 

For an example of other exposures- if you’re afraid of dogs, walk by the dog park every day. The repetition is important, as soon as you’re able you want to try to lengthen out the time you’re there or “loop” the activity- so standing and looking at the dog park for 30 minutes or walking by the dog park 3 times in a row.  It’s really important that you stay with the situation long enough for your anxiety to lessen. Or at the very least that you set a goal based around a number (how long you’ll be there or how many times you’ll do something) never set a goal like (I’ll stay there until/unless I get too anxious) because that’s just an invitation to your brain to increase your anxiety levels through avoidance. 

So after repetition, here’s the other key- you’ve got to allow yourself to do something while you feel anxious. It’s normal to feel anxious or afraid during exposure. This is where your unwritten rules are going to try to take over. People with anxiety disorders often have the rule “If it makes me anxious it must be bad. It must be dangerous. I can’t handle it”. These are rules that you made up, you believe them, but they just aren’t true.  Anxiety is not “Bad” It’s uncomfortable, it’s unpleasant, but it serves a function.  You have to challenge those thoughts that say anxiety is dangerous. It’s not bad or harmful, it’s just hard. You can do hard things. This skill is called willingness. 

The really cool thing is that when you feel nervous, that emotional energy primes the brain to learn. As you face your fears, and survive, your anxiety will go down and your confidence will go up. Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brain adapts to situations and re-labels them as being actually safe. This will decrease fear or anxiety over time. 

So next time I’m coming back and I’m going to do 10 5 foot falls.

Footage of me taking bigger and bigger falls. 

Montage of me falling. 

So if you’re new to this channel, I teach mental health skills, so subscribe if you’d like to learn more. 

I’m starting to feel more confident, but I’m still nervous about taking bigger falls, today’s the day. Let’s take some big falls!

Footage of me taking big, overhung lead falls. Talking about my heartrate, taking about my SUD’s 

Step 5: Repeat

OK, so I’m not just going to assume that I’m cured here. For this to really work, I need to practice falling over and over, frequently, for a long period of time. I’m planning on coming to the gym all winter, and practicing leading and falling at least once a week for 6 months. 

For exposure therapy to work, you’ve got to face your fears over and over, daily if possible, and have longer exposures (60-90 minutes) multiple times each week. It can also help you to track your fear levels, as your numbers begin to drop, gradually move up to the next scary item on the ladder.  

Even if your not afraid anymore,try to set something up so that you keep facing your fear. For example, if you’re scared of needles, then change the picture on your phone home screen to a syringe. Just like staying physically fit, consistently facing your fears is mental fitness, just like building muscles, you build confidence in your ability to do hard things. 

Footage of me taking falls while clipping, etc. talking about what I’m learning. 

Step 6: Reinforce Courage

Give yourself some credit! You are doing something hard for you, don’t compare yourself with others or put yourself down.  Each time you face a fear- say outloud or write down “I did something hard today” “I can do hard things” or “I’m proud of myself” allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment, when you do, your brain basically releases more dopamine- which is the reward chemical, but it’s also the motivation chemical- this helps you feel more motivated the next time to do it again. Also notice, was it as dangerous as you thought it was? Or did you learn anything new?

Make sure to keep track of your progress so you can look back and see how far you’ve come. 

So as I look at my list, things that used to be a 4-5 are now a 1-2. I am getting better at falling. My goal is to take 5 falls a week on lead, and I’ll check back in on the channel when I’ve done that. I hope to be able to send you guys a video of me climbing the routes I was avoiding. 

So here’s what I’ve learned. 

When you intentionally allow yourself to feel the fear and do it anyway, you’re going to learn that anxiety doesn’t have to control you. You’re going to build up your belief in your ability to do hard things. And you’re going to be able to live the life that you value.  Woot woot. I love this stuff. 

Learn more about the course, How To Break The Anxiety Cycle in 30 Days below. 

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