Graded Exposure Meets Us Where We Are

We can feel very overwhelmed by life’s demands but utilizing Graded Exposure meets us where we are. Deciding to engage in a new exercise regime or starting a new diet will likely be a short-lived change unless we ease into it. If someone decides to start running for health reasons, they don’t go out and run 10 miles on the first day. Instead, they may start with brisk walks (depending on their fitness and running ability) and work their way up to long periods of endurance running. The same methodology is true for our emotions and coping abilities. Facing demands that may illicit fear or anxiety are best approached through a gradual process of exposure (the same can be said for our ability to cope with the sadness associated with loss).

Most of us don’t think much about the demands placed upon us on a daily basis because we are in a routine and accustomed to them. It is for this reason that when someone else covers for us (i.e., assumes responsibility for our tasks) it can feel overwhelming to that person — they are not used to the demands. Of course, changes to our routine or additions to our daily schedule will result in increased demands. Often these are short in duration and our adjustment or adaptability is not overtaxed. However, there are certainly times when that is not the case.

When we feel that the demands placed upon us are greater than we can handle, we will respond in one of two ways. To be clear, this is our appraisal of the demands and our perceptions of our ability to manage, neither of which are necessarily completely accurate. Nonetheless, on the one hand, we may respond by acknowledging the challenge and applying efforts, resources, and strategies to deal with it. Obviously, this is the healthiest way to engage in the increased demand. On the other hand, we may respond by avoiding, feeling anxious or fearful, or becoming angry. It does not take much imagination to understand how this strategy will inevitably lead to further difficulty.

When Does It Go Wrong

Phobias develop over time when we tend to avoid the unpleasant feeling associated with a targeted object or situation. If an individual experiences discomfort in high places, that individual will avoid high places. If the avoidance is too extreme, it stretches from the mild (I choose not to go to the edge of a cliff while on a hike) to severe (I avoid videos, images, or discussions that have to do with high places). Obviously, the more severe the avoidance, the greater the issue. In order to treat such avoidance, trained specialists can help an individual to gradually engage in exposure to that specific object or situation. It may start with simply talking about the element in detail. The use of imagery can support this change dramatically before real life exposure begins.

There is a considerable amount of research that demonstrates the benefits and efficacy of graded exposure. Stress-inoculation training has been used to treat a number of different challenges, both clinical and non-clinical. Similar to a vaccine that exposes the immune system to a small dose of something undesirable, so too does stress inoculate the psyche towards undesired responses. As immunity builds, the biological response fends off the undesirable symptoms and illness. This is precisely what the brain does when it is armed to defuse the alarm signals triggered by previously phobic objects or situations. To be clear, this does not mean that the person will enjoy or seek out the phobic element, but rather that this person will no longer experience dysfunction from exposure to the phobic element.

Every one of us has experienced some type of demand that results in unpleasant symptoms or responses — even something as simple as a strained muscle that results in a change in movement and action which we took for granted shortly before. It would be wise to remember the healthier responses to such situations and keep in mind the graded exposure strategy to support our response. Ultimately, we are using a strategy to successfully meet life’s demands with the abilities available to us.

Putting It All Together

Strategies to Respond to High Demands:

Recognize this is a challenge

Identify available resources for support

Apply effort and action appropriate to your ability

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