Even though negative emotions are unpleasant, it is important that we push ourselves to face them. Each time we face an uncomfortable situation it becomes less challenging. Likewise, each time we avoid a stressful situation, the situation becomes more and more overwhelming in our mind. David H. Barlow, a noted psychologist, co-authored the book The Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders: Workbook in which he discussed the usefulness of exposing ourselves to distressing situations.
Situation-Based Emotion Exposures
Facing stress-inducing situations allows us to test our unhelpful beliefs. For example, we might believe that if we walk up a flight of stairs we will have a heart attack. If we continually avoid walking up any stairs, we will never challenge our unhelpful beliefs and our fear and avoidance will grow in power. Furthermore, avoiding stairs also means that our ability to live our daily lives depends on avoiding any locations or situations in which you might need to walk up a flight of stairs. Not only does this limit our opportunities in life, but it also leads to embarrassment and shame when others inevitably learn of our fears. Therefore, it is crucial that we take slow incremental steps to face our fears. For example, if we cannot walk up a flight of stairs without feeling overwhelmed, can we walk up three steps? Even walking up three steps might be anxiety provoking. That is a good thing! It is important that we allow ourselves to feel the anxiety. It is important that we allow our heart to race without attempting to avoid or reduce the anxiety. Sooner or later, our heart rate will slow down and our anxiety will begin to decrease slightly. When we face our fears in this way, time after time, we begin to learn that what we fear will not harm us. We might feel exhausted and emotionally drained but, overtime, the anxiety we associate with stairs will subside and our lives will open up.
There are many ways to face stressful situations in a way that helps to improve our lives. Below are just a few examples:
- Introduce yourself to a stranger and start a conversation.
- Volunteer to give a presentation on a topic of your choice at school, work, or at a local organization.
- Try out a new activity that has been lingering on your “To Do List” (e.g. yoga, art class, CrossFit).
If you are interested in learning more about emotional exposure please continue reading this blog series or contact us for a free phone consultation.
Author Dr. Jason von Stietz specializes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Sport/Performance Psychology in Torrance, CA.