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Desensitization for Anxiety

Posted on August 21, 2011 at 11:17 AM Comments comments (1136)
Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to treat anxiety is what is called desensitization or exposure therapy.  Simply stated this simply means that you overcome your fear by first of all clarifying what you are afraid of and then design a program with your psychologist to do establish a list of steps to overcome your fear.  For example, let's suppose that you were in a severe car wreck and as a result have a great deal of fear about driving.  This is not an uncommon response.  There is a part of everyone's brain (the limbic system)
 
that acts as a self-protective device that remembers everything associated with a traumatic experience.  In other words, anything that looks like, sounds like, smells like, tastes like, or feels like it was associated with the traumatic experience causes anxiety.  The limbic brain is saying in effect, "Watch out! Remember the last time you experienced these sensations you experienced severe pain."   This self-protection device can keep us from danger but it can also significantly interfere with the rest of our lives if we allow it to overcome our reason.  In our example the person in a car accident may rationally want to return to driving, which makes their life infinitely more convenient, but the limbic brain keeps sounding the alarm so they feel overwhelming anxiety at the thought of getting in a car and driving by themselves.
 
Working with a skilled psychologist can be very helpful with anxiety problems.  In the above case the client was able to drive after about five months of therapy by approaching the problem systematically in small steps.  They first of all simply learned how to relax themselves using deep breathing, biofeedback, and guided imagery. They started by imagining themselves sitting in their car and feeling their anxiety heighten.  Then they used the techniques listed above to reduce their anxiety to a manageable level.  They next moved to actually sitting in their car and again used the techniques to reduce their anxiety to a manageable level.
 
Eventually they step by step overcame their anxiety as their experiences moved them closer and closer to actually driving alone.  It was the slow but deliberate process of exposing themselves to situations that initially frightened them and then learning to relax themselves that was the key to their returning to full functioning as a driver who had the freedom of the road and actually enjoyed taking road trips!
 
This same technique has been proven to be successful for any number of clients who have overcome their fears that resulted from a past trauma (ie. domestic violence, a painful loss, a childhood or adult history of abuse, or a combat related loss).  The basic tenant is that the limbic brain, in trying to prevent a reoccurance of a trauma, can become an impediment that needs to be treated in order to restore the reduction of anxiety as well as the freedom to experience life to the fullest with only a normal level of manageable anxiety.