Natural vs Structured Exposure: Why Anxiety Never Goes?

You’re tired of living with anxiety, so you decide to do something about it. Moreover, this time you want to try something that will be challenging and that will yield lasting results. As a long time anxiety sufferer, you know about exposure therapy and you heard that it has been effective for a lot of people with anxiety, so this sounds like the right thing to try.

Ready to put an end to your suffering, you go out for a few days in a row and feel energized as the exposure seems to be working. Yes you feel the discomfort, but you no longer feel your life to be limited by anxiety.

This success keeps you going for a couple of weeks until you get busy with other things. You stop exposures satisfied with the results because you’ve been able to face your anxiety, which is exactly what you wanted to do. But most importantly, you feel a lot better than before, as your anxiety level is much more tolerable.

However, after some time you notice your anxiety coming back, but this time with more intensity. You get frustrated and think to yourself “Why is it back? I tried to face it! I guess facing anxiety doesn’t work after all or maybe this isn’t for me.” Frustrated and discouraged, you go back to old coping method based on avoidance and distraction.

Now, let me tell you about two types of exposures – Natural and Structured, and what you’ve been doing wrong this whole time when it comes to facing your anxiety.

Natural Exposure

Natural Exposure is exactly what was described in the introduction. It’s a decision to go out and face your anxiety on your own without any guidance or structure. As a result, your recovery process looks something like this:

Life with Natural Exposure chart

Life with natural exposure chart

Whenever you decide to do something about your anxiety, you start feeling better, but then you feel better and stop working on recovery, which in turn brings anxiety back. In other words, life with natural exposure is like a roller coaster ride that never seems to end.

I did a lot of natural exposure on my own journey and it always ended with frustration. If often felt like all of my efforts were for nothing. I eventually learned a lot from my natural exposures, predominantly about what I should never do if I wanted to recover.

Here are the main characteristics of natural exposures to help you avoid my mistakes:

  • Usually unpredictable and certainly unsystematic
  • Brief usually followed with a sense of defeat when they’re over
  • Infrequent and sporadic
  • Threat information exaggerated, and safety information ignored
  • Intolerance of anxiety and heightened anxiety control efforts
  • Reliance on escape and avoidance

Sounds familiar? Well, let me give an alternative in the form of Structured Exposure then, so you can gain control over your recovery.

Structured Exposure

The reason why your previous attempts to work on recovery have been unsuccessful is because you didn’t have any structure when facing your anxiety. Having a structure is like have is map that shows you where is your destination and what routes you should take to get there. Structure is all about measuring your success instead of relying on luck or instincts. As a result of structured exposure, your recovery path will look like this:

Life with Structure Exposure chart

Life with structured exposure chart

As opposed to natural, structured exposure could be a bit more challenging at first, because instead of stopping half way, you will actually process your anxiety fully. But as you keep working on recovery and measuring your results, what you will notice is that your overall anxiety level is consistently going down. Of course you won’t be able to notice it if you’re not measuring your success. It’s this constant vision of success that will encourage you to keep going all the way to the end of anxiety disorder.

As a result of my own struggles, I can tell you with confidence that having structure in your recovery is the best way to be in charge of your recovery. To give you a better picture of structured exposure, here are the main characteristics:

  • Predicted, planned, and systematic
  • Prolonged duration leading to a sense of victory
  • Frequent and repeated
  • Threat information evaluated, and safety information is processed
  • Increased tolerance for anxiety and reduced control efforts
  • Elimination of escape and avoidance

How To Begin Structure Exposure?

The most effective way to add structure into your exposure is to start working with a mental health professional, anxiety coach or someone who knows how anxiety works and can guide you along the way. You can also get CBT based recovery plan or a program and fully focus your efforts on that.

If you’re self-starter and can motivate yourself for a prolonged period of time, then you can also try to make it on your own, this is what I did. However, it will be hard because you will come across a lot of challenges like what avoidance keeps fueling your anxiety, how to properly journal your progress, etc.

If you want to save yourself time and get all of my knowledge, experience and guidance, then consider coaching with me. But no matter what you choose to do, keep in mind these words from Peter Drucker: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

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