Different Types of Exposure Therapy to Build Mental Fortitude
How often do you do things that make you uncomfortable? We’re not talking about sitting in a cubicle cranking out TPS reports all day—we mean voluntarily choosing to do something you fear. It could be giving a toast at your best friend’s wedding, joining a new gym full of intimidatingly fit people or getting on an airplane to visit a new country. Many people can swallow their fears when they have the motivation. But when you avoid potentially unpleasant experiences simply because you don’t want to feel uncomfortable, you might need help building mental fortitude.
Exposure therapy has been proven to help people overcome their fears, from mild discomfort to extreme phobias. This type of treatment exposes patients to their fears in a safe, guided environment. As the patient gradually pushes their own limits, they realize that their fears were irrational—or, at least, that they can still function under duress. Exposure therapy can also help people struggling with mental and mood disorders, like depression, anxiety, phobias, panic disorder and PTSD.
Whether you seek help with a licensed therapist or simply need ideas to overcome mild anxiety, exposure therapy will help you build mental fortitude and approach challenges in a healthy way.
What is mental fortitude?
Mental fortitude refers to our ability to carry on in the face of adversity or uncertainty. Public speaking is a great example: there are people who fear talking in front of a crowd more than death. Unless you have a job that requires public speaking, you can probably avoid it the rest of your life…if you want to. But what if that fear keeps you from doing something important, like giving the best man speech at your best friend’s wedding?
Unless their fear is overwhelming, many people would power through (or at least stammer through) a speech on that special occasion. Even if they sweat profusely and stumble over their words, even if they’re never fully comfortable, something magical happens in that moment: they prove to themselves that they can get through it.
That is the essence of mental fortitude. When you keep functioning despite discomfort, your lizard brain realizes that this situation actually isn’t worse than death. You might not love it, and you certainly don’t have to be good at it, but now you know you can handle the challenge. All of those experiences make you a more interesting human, too.
Types of exposure therapy
Fear and anxiety exist on a spectrum. So does exposure therapy. The type and severity of fear you suffer from will help determine which type of therapy is best. Here are the four main categories:
- In vivo: This therapy requires you to directly face your fears, like giving a wedding speech or being judged by teenagers. You can do this on your own, or under the guidance of a therapist.
- Imaginal: Imaginal exposure asks you to vividly imagine your fear. This is a good technique for people with PTSD (preferably under the supervision of a licensed therapist). You can explore the associated feelings, memories and sensations while in a safe environment.
- Virtual reality: Sometimes it’s just not practical to directly face your fears. For example, few people can afford to hop on an airplane often enough to work through a severe fear of flying. Virtual reality can recreate the triggering environment so you can gradually reduce your fears.
- Interoceptive: This type of therapy focuses on physical sensations the patient associates with their phobia or fear. The idea is to recreate the feeling in a safe environment, so your brain and body realize it’s not actually a threat. For instance, people with panic disorder often experience a rapid heartbeat. They might go for a run to increase their heart rate, then sit with and examine that feeling. This helps break down their fear-based associations.
As you gradually realize certain situations, experiences and physical sensations are safe, you’re less likely to avoid new experiences.
The bottom line
When you’re in your head, it’s easy to build discomfort and anxiety into a seemingly life-threatening fear. Exposure therapy doesn’t always eradicate fear or discomfort forever—nor should that be your goal. Instead, it helps build the mental fortitude you need to get through difficult experiences. Whether you face your fears on your own or with the help of a therapist, exposure therapy will help you create the resilience you need to meet challenges head-on.