Ah, 1970’s TV. So weird. So wonderful. In the opening sequence for Kung Fu, Kwai Chang Caine brands himself with the dragon and tiger by lifting an iron pot full of red-hot coals with his bare arms. Ouch. There’s a reason shaolin masters are not found on every street corner. Like Caine (but thankfully without any need for burning pain) facing a fearful situation and tolerating the discomfort is the path to mastery. Mastery of anxiety. It’s the antidote to worry. In some cases, however, facing the feared event is either not possible or would be too much like burning yourself with red-hot iron. That’s when the antidote is worse than the problem.
Allowing yourself to experience that which scares off one’s socks is the goal. That’s all fine and dandy; except when we’re talking about a couple of untouchables. First, it is simply not possible to let yourself experience a potential event. Something in the future. Something which has not yet happened and might never happen. I don’t see any (functional) time machines on eBay.
Secondly, we have the Kung Fu kind of over-the-top scenario. What if the anxiety is about a loved one dying in a car crash (or from COVID-19)? What if it’s about forgetting to turn-off the stove, and your home burning down? These are scenarios I just can’t tell people they should let themselves experience.
“Really, it’ll be worth it! You’ll learn to tolerate discomfort and stop worrying! How awesome is that?”
A Clever Solution To A Difficult Problem
This is the third in a series on great anxiety-busting ideas from Dr. Michel Dugas. Dr. D and gang came up with an amazing way to accomplish exposure without needing to burn down your home. It’s called “cognitive exposure.” The imagination is used to “virtually” practice exposure.
Now let me be very clear. Cognitive exposure is very structured, and requires a big commitment of time and effort. Sadly, just imagining some scary stuff for a few minutes is not a secret formula to overcome worry.
In a recent therapy session, cognitive exposure came up at the last minute. I promised the person I would email information on cognitive exposure, so they could get a head start before the next session. Only afterward did I remember that the information was scattered through treatment manuals and point-form notes.
So I could either forward a bunch of dry, technical jargon and incomprehensible shorthand; or I could finally get around to doing something I should have done a long time ago: put together a handout explaining cognitive exposure. Good for me, I chose #2.
I’m now faced with another choice. I could either explain cognitive exposure in this blog post (which would be a real waste of time, after crafting that handout) or I could upload the handout and provide a link to it. Guess which one I’m going to choose?