Number One, it’s so scary to do an exposure, and number two, there’s so many things that people have brought up as things to do, even me, this being Your Anxiety Toolkit. Maybe you get overwhelmed with the opportunity and options for tools that it gets too complicated. So, I want to make this super easy for you, and I want to go through step by step, like what you’re supposed to do during or after an exposure.
Now, I think it’s important that we first look at, there is no right. You get to choose, and I’m going to say that all the way through here, but I’m going to give you some really definitive goals to be going forward with as you do an exposure, as you face your fear. Now, make sure you stick around to the end because I will also address some of the biggest roadblocks I hear people have with the skills that I’m going to share.
Now, a lot of you know, I have ERP School if you have OCD and I have Overcoming Anxiety and Panic if you have panic, and I have BFRB School if you have hair pulling and skin picking. These are all basically courses of me teaching you exactly what I teach my patients. So, if you want a deeper in-depth study of that, you can, by all means, get the steps there of how to build an exposure plan, how to build a response prevention plan. Today, I’m going to complement that work and talk about what to do during and after an exposure. So here we go.
Let’s say you already know what you’re going to face. Like I said, you’ve already created an exposure plan. You understand the cycle of the disorder or the struggle that you are handling, and you’ve really identified how you’re going to break that cycle and you’ve identified the fear that you’re going to face. Or just by the fact of nature being the nature, you’ve been spontaneously exposed to your fear. What do you do?
Now, let’s recap the core concepts that we talk about here all the time on Your Anxiety Toolkit, which is, number one, what we want to do is practice tolerating whatever discomfort you experience. What does that mean? It means being open and compassionate and vulnerable as you experience discomfort in your body. A lot of people will say, “But what am I supposed to do?” And this is where I’m going to say, this is very similar to me trying to teach you how to ride a bike on this podcast. Or I’ll tell you a story. My 11-year-old daughter was sassing me the other day and I was telling her I wanted her to unpack the dishwasher, and she said, “How?” She was just giving me sass, joking with me. And I was saying to her, “Well, you raise your hand up and you open your fist and you put your hand over the top of the dishwasher and you pull with your muscles down towards your--” I’m trying giving her like silly-- we’re joking with each other, like step by step.
Now, it’s very hard to learn how to do that by just words. Usually—let’s go back to the bike example—you have to get on the bike and feel the sensation of falling to know what to do to counter the fall as you start to lean to the left or lean to the right. And so, when it comes to willingly tolerating your discomfort, it actually just requires you practicing it, and if I’m going to be quite honest with you, sucking at it, because you will suck at it. We all suck at being uncomfortable. But then working at knowing how to counter that discomfort. Again, you’re on the bike, you’re starting to feel yourself move to the right and learning to lean to the left a little to balance it out. And that’s what learning how to be uncomfortable is about too. It’s having the discomfort, noticing in your body it’s tightening, and learning to do the opposite of that tightening. It is very similar to learning how to ride a bike. And it’s very similar in that it’s not just a cognitive behavior, it’s a physical thing. It’s noticing, “Oh, I’m tight.” For me, as I get anxious, I always bring my shoulders up and it’s learning to counter that by dropping them down. So, it’s tolerating discomfort.
Now, often beyond that-- I’m going to give you some more strategy here in a second. But beyond that, it’s actually quite simple in that you go and do whatever it is that you would be doing if you hadn’t faced this hard thing.
Here is an example. The other week during the holidays, one of my family members-- I’ll tell you the story. My mom and dad took a trip to Antarctica. This is a dream trip for them. They’re very well-traveled and they were going through what’s called the Drake Passage, which is this very scary passage of water. It took them 36 hours to sail through it and it can be very dangerous. And I noticed that the anxiety I was feeling in my body about the uncertainty of where they are and how far they’ve got to go and are they safe and all these things is I was sitting on the couch and I wasn’t engaging in anything. My kids were trying to talk to me and I was blowing them off. And I was scrolling on my phone instead of doing the things I needed to do. I was stuck and I was holding myself in this stuckness because I didn’t want to let go of the fear, but I did want to let go of the fear. It was this really weird thing where I was just stuck in a sense of freeze mode. And I had to remind myself, “Kimberley, they’re sailing through the Drake Passage. There’s nothing you can do. Go and live your life. Holding yourself on this couch is not going to change any outcome. You thinking about it is not going to change any outcome. Just go ahead with your life.”
And so, what I want to offer to you is—I’ve said this to my patients as well when they say, “What am I supposed to do now? I’ve done the exposure. What am I supposed to do?”—I say, do nothing at all. Just go about your day. What would you do if anxiety wasn’t here? What would you be doing if you didn’t do this exposure? What would the non-anxious you go and do? And as you do that-- so let’s say you’re like, “Well, I need to do the dishes or I need to unpack the dishwasher,” as you do that, you will notice discomfort rise and fall. And just like riding a bike, you are going to practice not contracting to it. Just like if you were riding a bike and you started to lean to the right, you would be practicing gently leading to the left. And if you go too far to the left, you would practice gently leading to the right. And that’s the work of being uncomfortable.
Now, you’re not here to make the discomfort go away. You’re here to practice willingly allowing it and not tensing up against it while you go and live your life. And I literally could leave the podcast there. I could sign off right now and be like, “That’s all I need you to know,” because that is all I need you to know, is practice not contracting. Meaning not tensing your muscles, not trying to think it away, fight it away, push it away. What you’re really doing is allowing there to be uncertainty in your life or discomfort or anxiety in your life and just go and do what you love to do.
To be honest, the biggest finger, like the bird, I don’t know what you call it. Like the biggest in-your-face to anxiety, whatever anxiety you’re suffering, is to go and live your life. And so, I could leave it at that, but because I want to be as thorough as I can, I want to just check in here with a couple of things that you need to know. Often when, and we go through this extensively in ERP School and in Overcoming Anxiety and Panic, is when you are uncomfortable, there are a set of general behaviors that humans engage in that you need to get good at recognizing and create a plan for. And these are the things we usually do to make our discomfort go away. So, the first one is a physical compulsion. “I’m uncomfortable. How can I get it to go away? I’ll engage in a behavior.”
So, remember here that exposures are really only as good as the response prevention. Now for those of you who don’t know what response prevention is, it’s ultimately not doing a behavior to reduce or remove the discomfort you feel that’s resulted from the exposure. So, you do an exposure, you’re uncomfortable, what behaviors would you usually do to make that discomfort go away? Response prevention is not doing those behaviors.
So, the first one is physical compulsions. So, if you notice that you’re doing these physical repetitive behaviors, chances are, you’re doing a compulsion of what we call a safety behavior and you’re doing them to make the discomfort go away. So, we want to catch and be aware of those.
We also want to be aware of avoidance. Often people will say, “Okay, I faced the scary thing, but I don’t want to make it any worse so I’m going to avoid these other things until this discomfort goes away.” Now, first of all, I’m going to say, good job. That’s a really good start. But we want to work at not doing that avoidant behavior during or after the exposure as well. In addition, we want to work at not doing reassurance-seeking behaviors during or after an exposure.
So, an example that that might be, let’s say you’re facing your fear of going to the doctor. But as you’re facing your fear of going to the doctor, you’re sitting there going through WebMD or any other health Google search engine and you’re trying to take away your discomfort by searching and researching and getting reassurance or texting a friend going, “Are you sure I’m going to be okay? Are you sure bad things aren’t going to happen?”
Now, one of the things that are the most hardest to stop when you’ve done an exposure or during an exposure is mental compulsions. So, I want to slow down here for you and I want to say, this is a work in progress. We’re going to take any win that we can and celebrate it, but also acknowledge that we can slowly work to reduce these mental compulsions. Now a mental compulsion is rumination, problem-solving, thinking, thinking, thinking. Like I said to you, when I was on the couch, I was just sitting there going over all the scenarios going, “I wonder if they’re going up or down or what they’re doing. And I hope they’re avoiding the big waves and I hope they’re not stuck and I hope they’re not scared and I hope they’re okay.” All the things. All that I hope they are was me doing mental compulsions.
And so, you won’t be able to prevent these all the time. But for me, it was observing again, when I’m contracting. The contraction in this case was mental rumination. And then again, just like a bike, noticing, I’m focusing in, very, very zoomed in on this one thing. How can I zoom out, just like it would be leaning from left to right if I was riding a bike—zoom out into what’s actually happening, which is my son’s right in front of me asking me to play Minecraft or play Pokemon or whatever it is that he was asking, and the dishes need doing. And I would really love to read some poetry right now because that’s what I love to do.
So, it’s catching that and being aware of that. And again, it’s not something I can teach you, it’s something you have to practice and learn for yourself in that awareness of, “Ooh, I’m contracting. Ooh, I’m zooming in. I need to zoom out and look at the big picture here. I need to look at what my values are, engage in what I want to be doing right now.”
The last way that we contract is self-punishment. We start to just beat ourselves up. So, you did the exposure, you’re feeling uncertain, you might be feeling other emotions like guilt and shame and embarrassment and all the emotions. And so, in effort to avoid that, we just beat ourselves up.
I have a client who does amazing exposures, but once they’ve done the exposure, they beat themselves up for not having done the exposure earlier. It’s like, ouch. Wow. So, you’re doing this amazing thing, facing this amazing fear, practicing not contracting, doing actually a pretty good job, but then engaging in punishing themselves. “Why didn’t I do this earlier? I should have done this years ago. I could have saved myself so much suffering. I could have recovered earlier. I could have gotten to college earlier. I could have succeeded more.” Again, that’s a contraction that we do during exposure to fight or react to the fact that you have discomfort in your body.
And what I really want to offer you, again, let’s go back to basics—this is just about you learning to be a safe place while you have discomfort. So, you’re having discomfort, you’re riding the bike. Please don’t just use this podcast as a way to fill your brain with all the tools and not implement it. I will not be able to teach you to metaphorically ride a bike until you put your little tush on the bike seat and you give it a go and you fail a bunch of times.
And so again, this is you learning to sit on the bike metaphorically, doing an exposure, noticing you’re falling to the right and learning to be aware of that and learning what the skill you need to use in that moment and then learn how to adjust in that moment. And that’s the work. That’s the work—gently, kindly, compassionately, tending to what shows up to you as if you really matter because you really, really matter.
Let me say that again. You’re going to tend to yourself. I’m saying it twice because I need you to hear me. You’re going to tend to yourself compassionately because you matter. This matters. You are doing some pretty brave things. Right now, I’m wearing my “It’s a beautiful day to do hard thing” t-shirt. It’s what I wear every Wednesday because it’s my favorite day to record podcasts and to do this with you. So yeah, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to sit together, we’re going to do the hard thing, we’re going to do it kindly.
But again, let me come back to the real simplicity of this, is just go do you and let it be imperfect. Exposures are not going to be perfect. You’re not going to do them perfect. Just like if I learn to ride a bike for the first time, probably going to crash, but the crashes will teach me what to do next time I’m almost about to crash.
Now, as I promised you, there are some common roadblocks, I would say, that get in the way and they usually are thoughts. Now if you have OCD, we go through this extensively in ERP School because it does tend to show up there the most, but it does show up with panic as well a lot, is there are roadblocks or thoughts that pull us back into contraction because when we think them, we think they’re real. An example would be, what if I lose control and go crazy? That’s a really common one. A lot of times, that thought alone can make us go, “Nope, I refuse to tolerate that risk,” and we contract, and we end up doing compulsions. And the compulsion or the safety behavior takes away the benefit of that initial exposure.
Another one is, what if I push myself too hard, like have a heart attack or my body can’t take it and I implode? As ridiculous as it sounds, I can’t tell you how many of my patients and clients in the 10-plus years I’ve been practicing—way more, close to 15 years—I’ve been practicing as a therapist, clients have said, “I’ve completely ejected from the exposure because of the fear I will implode,” even though they know that that’s, as far as we know, not possible. Again, I’ve never heard of it before, I’ve never seen it before, except on cartoons.
So, again, it’s being able to identify, I call them roadblocks, but there are things that come up that make us eject out of the exposure like you’re in Top Gun. I loved that movie, by the way. But that whole idea of like, you pull a little lever and you just boom, eject out of the exposure like you’re ejecting out of an airplane or a flight, fast jet, because of a thought they had. And so, your job, if you can, again, is to be aware of how you contract around thoughts that are catastrophic.
A lot of people, depending on the content of their obsessions, every little subtype of anxiety, every different disorder have their own little content that keep us stuck. Your job is to get really good at being aware of, specifically, I call them allowing thoughts. They’re thoughts that we have that give us permission to do, to pull the eject handle. I call them allowing thoughts. So, it might be, “No, you’ve done enough. You probably will lose control if you do that. So, you can do the safety behavior or the compulsion.” That’s an allowing thought. Your job is to get used to yours and know yours and be familiar with them so that you can learn to, again, have good skills at countering that and responding. Again, think of the bike. That allowing thought is you tilting to the right a little bit when you’re like, “Oops, nope, I’m going to fall if I keep tilting. I’m going to have to work at going against that common behavior I use that is continually contracting against tolerating discomfort.”
Other bigger roadblocks are fear of panic, which is a common one. Again, mostly, people’s thoughts around “I can’t handle this.” You’re going to have specific ones. Again, I don’t want to put everyone in the same category. Everyone’s going to have different ones. But please get used to your roadblocks or become aware of them, okay?
And that’s it, you guys. I feel silly saying it, but that is it. Your job is to lean in.
One other thing I would say, and I often give my patients the option, is I’ll say to them, “Here are your choices. You’ve done an exposure. You ultimately have three choices.”
So, let’s pretend—we’ll do a role-play—we’re in the room together or we’re on Zoom, and the client has willingly done the exposure and then they start to freak out, let’s say, in one specific situation. And I’ll say, okay, you got three choices. You could go and do a compulsion and get rid of it. Go and make this discomfort go away if that’s in fact possible for you. The other option is you could practice this response prevention and practice not contracting. That’s another option for you. You get to choose. And there is this very sneaky third option, and I will offer this to you as well. The third option is, you could go and make it worse. And I have hats off to you if you want to choose that option. So, the go and make it worse would be to find something else to expose yourself to in that moment. Make it worse. Bring it on. How can we have more? What thoughts can I have that would make this even more scary? How could I do flooding? How could I find ways to literally say to your fear, “Come on fear, let’s do this. I have so much more fear facing to do and I am not afraid and I’m going to do it.”
So you have three options. Please be compassionate about all three because you may find that you’re choosing the first or the second or the third depending on the day, but they’re yours to choose. There is no right. There is more ideal and effective. Of course, the latter two options are the most effective options. But again, when we learn to ride a bike, no one does it perfectly. We fall a lot. Sometimes if you’ve ridden a bike for a very long time and you are a skilled bike rider-- in fact, we have evidence that even bike riders who do the Tour de France still fall off their bike sometimes for ridiculous reasons, and we are going to offer them compassion. And if you are one of those who are skilled at this, but fall off your bike sometimes, that’s not because anything’s wrong with you. That’s because you’re a human being. Okay?
So that is what I’m going to offer you. The question, what do I do after and during I’ve done an exposure, is be aware of your contractions in whatever form they may be. Be kind. And if all else fails, just go and live your life. Go and do the thing you would do if you hadn’t have that, didn’t have that fear. It doesn’t matter if you’re shaking, doesn’t matter if you’re panicking, doesn’t matter if you’re having tightness of breath, you’re dizzy, all the things. Be gentle, be kind, keep going. Do what you can in that moment, and you get to choose. You get to choose.
So, that is what I want you to hear from me today. I hope it has been helpful. I feel so good about making an episode just about this. Number one, I get asked a lot, so I really want to have a place to send them. And number two, I admit to making the mistake of sometimes saying go do an exposure and not actually dropping down into these very common questions that people have.
For those of you who are interested, we do have ERP School, Overcoming Anxiety and Panic, BFRB School. We’ve got time management courses, all kinds of courses that you can get. The link will be in the show notes. I do encourage you to go check them out if you’re wanting step by step structural trainings to help you put together a plan. If you’ve got a therapist already or you’re just doing this on your own, that’s fine too. Hopefully, this will help lead you in the direction that’s right for you.
All right. You know I’m going to say it. It’s a beautiful day to do hard things. And so, I hope that’s what you’re doing. I am sending you so much love and so much well wishes and loving-kindness. Have a wonderful day and I’ll see you next week with a very exciting piece of news.