Parents and family members can support their anxious child while challenging them to develop better coping skills by facing their fears in a structured way, using the principles and methods of exposure therapy.
Often individuals experience symptoms of anxiety because they misperceive a situation as more dangerous or embarrassing than it actually is. In this “false alarm,” there is a mismatch between what the mind and body experience and with the actual situation, causing the person to use maladaptive techniques to feel better: avoid or leave a social situation, become verbally or physically aggressive, become so distracted by worries that he or she cannot engage in routine activities etc. One type of treatment for anxiety caused by these misperceptions is Exposure Therapy, in which an individual is gradually exposed to the anxiety provoking trigger. For example, if an individual is anxious about loud noises, he or she is slowly introduced to louder and louder noises while being supported by a therapist or “exposure coach”, which can be a family member or close friend.
To be an effective “Exposure Coach”, it is important to follow the rules below:
- Coordinate an exposure plan with your loved one’s therapist
- Never do an exposure without your loved one’s consent and permission. Never “spring” an exposure on a person or expose them to something to “see how they will react.”
- Start small and slow. Build on successes of facing fears. Remember that the goal is to cut down on avoidance and escape and increase the willingness to approach feared situations. Even if what the person approaches seems minor, it is not insignificant.
- While it can feel natural to try to soothe and/or help your loved one escape from anxiety provoking situations, this may actually exacerbate the anxiety symptoms over time.