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Story time: What I gained from exposure therapy.

I have anxiety! The bad kind. The kind that makes you space out for a few moments. That whole out of body, disassociation from reality, blood rushing through your ears, heart thumping kind. The worst part about my anxiety is that it is anticipatory. I anticipate the worst possible outcome of all and any situations or upcoming events.

The problem with my kind of anxiety is this. I have come to realize, that while one side of me feels extremely safe, because I never do anything that forces me to challenge my feelings. The other side of me longs for the freedom from my own mind to do the things I desperately want to do.

Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained. ~Somers Roche

As my son has gotten older, this realization that I really need find ways to manage my anxiety has grown into something I can no longer put off. So I decided to do some research. In my hunt for a solution, I discovered Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy is a form of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) that is used by therapists to treat social anxiety, phobias and a whole host of other anxiety related disorders. It involves literally exposing yourself to your anxiety so that over time you feel less anxious.

Before I tell my story, I think there are a few disclaimers I need to make. Firstly, my decision to use the information I had gathered on exposure therapy without the input of a therapist was something I was comfortable doing. I would however suggest, that if you are not comfortable pursuing anything of this kind on your own, speak to a therapist for advice or assistance. Secondly, I am not a therapist and would not advise that you use my experience with Exposure Therapy as a guideline or solution. This is purely my experience.

If you are interested in learning more about Exposure Therapy, I would also suggest that you take a look at this YouTube video by The Anxiety Guy. It is a great overview of how Exposure Therapy works and a good way to decide whether it is something that you are interested in doing. If you plan on doing it on your own, it is also a great guideline for doing it the right way.

I decided to go the root of flooding. This is when you literally just step right in and do the thing that creates the most anxiety. I would not advise this in every situation, but a combination of my personality and the length I had gone to in preparation myself for this exposure event, made me comfortable enough to dive right in.

Setting up my exposure was something I gave a lot of thought to. I had an opportunity where my son would be visiting his girlfriend for the weekend, something that had happened multiple times beforehand and I was comfortable with. I roped in my mother, who had never seen Hermanus (a coastal town in the Western Cape of South Africa) and had been talking about wanting to go and see the tail end of the whale migration. I had been to Hermanus, and was very familiar with the travel route. I booked us accommodation directly on the waterfront, a 4 minute walk from all the hustle and bustle of activity.

At this point I realize you might be thinking, sounds like a weekend getaway that memories are made from, with nothing to be concerned about. And you would be right. My mind however has this way of sending a barrage of feelings I don’t ask for. Anything, from absolutely convincing ways that I could die in a car accident, to something happening to someone non-specific and I am 4 hours away and cannot be there to deal with the situation. Reasons I should stay at home that range from my animals to my son, who would be an hour and a half drive away in any event.

In the past I would have made up some excuse about the weather being too crappy, or I would fixate on some bizarre thing that needed to be taken care of to avoid going. This time, that was not an option. I was going, and I was going to feel every single fear, but do it anyway.

That was the key. I knew what my brain was going to do. I knew that I was going to be pushing my anxiety to its extreme. That was the point of this. I have told myself that I am so afraid of feeling my anxiety. That I fear the fear of feeling my anxiety. Its the strangest concept to explain to anyone who themselves does not suffer from it.

So off I went. Breathing exercises in mind. This little mantra of “anything could happen, irrespective of where I was or what I was doing,” and a playlist of all my favorite acoustic music. The further away from home I got, the higher my anxiety levels rose. I breathed through and told myself that nothing had happened, and pulled myself into reality. I did this by paying attention to the road, listening to the lyrics of music that I love, or engaging in conversation with my mother.

My poor mother, bless her soul, she just let me be. The entire way. 4 hours later, we arrived. This beautiful town. And then there was me. Spaced out and really struggling to get out of my head. We sat in the sunshine, had a breakfast, just talking.

We spoke about my fear, about my reasons for wanting to just be able to be comfortable feeling my anxiety, and needing to have experiences where nothing happened. The point was to expect to sit in a beautiful town and not enjoy my experience the same way that most would. I needed to feel everything, so that my brain could make sense of the experience. I needed to be anxious, work through it and move on from it so that my brain had a new experience it could rely on. The hardest part of anxiety for me, is that I know it is irrational thinking, but I have never put myself through experiences and gotten to the end it where nothing actually happened, so that I had that place I could go to. That memory that I could use to challenge my thoughts.

This picture my mom took, was the exact moment that I finally started to relax. This moment was the moment that I started to get comfortable with how my anxiety felt. This moment was the moment where I had finally accepted that I was there, that I needed to let it go and be present. This moment was 8 hours into the trip and this moment was where instead of focussing on how anxious I felt, I started talking about the things that created my anxiety. I started understanding what needed to change about my life. What I was allowing to eat away at my mental space, how I was sabotaging myself for the sake of someone else. How I was not living because I was consumed by breathing life into someone who was capable of doing it for themselves. I broke through in this moment, and continued to break through. I was being myself. I was enjoying the moment!

This is what this exposure experience gave me.

For the rest of my days, I will always have this experience to challenge my thoughts with. I went to Hermanus that one time. I felt every feeling. Nothing bad happened. Everyone survived. It was a beautiful trip, even though I felt anxious.

I had started to figure out how to cope with feeling anxious, and in spite of it, living through the experience.

On the drive home, I realized that I was so damn proud of myself. I laughed, I was relaxed. I wasn’t talking about my fears and my anxiety anymore. I was instead having a chuckle at the fact that every dang restaurant in Hermanus closes their kitchen at 9pm and the only one we found served me an off brisket burger! I didn’t space out once on the way home. I didn’t once panic about what could happen. I was actually too proud of myself for getting through the experience. I felt too good to be arsed with dissecting it.

I might never remember that trip for the beautiful hotel we stayed in, or the adorable whale calf that played around like it was having the time of its life.

But I will always remember that trip as the moment I realized that I could feel anxious and still enjoy my life!

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