08/06/2013 04:29 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Time to Hit the Anti-Anxiety Gym

In my last post, I discussed the benefits of putting your anxiety monster on a diet. Building on this theme, it is time to take our anxiety-management fitness plan to the next level. Yep, you guessed it. It is time to hit the anxiety gym. Don't get me wrong, it is fantastic to limit the intake of your anxiety monster's favorite foods (avoidance of anxiety inducing stimuli and obtaining reassurance that "everything is okay"), but there is even more you can do reduce the role of anxiety in your life. 
At my anxiety treatment clinic, more than 50 percent of my clients meet criteria for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The treatment of choice for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP entails approaching and making contact with feared stimuli, in a graded and well-defined fashion (through the creation of a hierarchy), while preventing the use of compulsions. My earlier post highlights the purpose and promise of response prevention. (In other words, not feeding your anxiety monster his favorite foods.) This post will discuss the benefits of exposure to feared stimuli, or as I like to think of it, hitting the anxiety gym. 
When clients come to see me, they will often hear me say encouraging (and quite possibly annoying) statements along the lines of "Short term pain, long term gain," or "If you are feeling anxious, that means we are on the right track," or in response to them telling me they are experiencing increased anxiety, I will reply, "Good!" Am I a masochist? No, I am pretty sure I am not. What I am is confident that by making contact verses running from anxiety, we can teach the fear networks of our brain that they are experiencing a false alarm, that the coast is clear and that the danger signal is unnecessary. 
It is critical when training at the anxiety gym, that one has a solid workout plan. This is not the time for all-or-nothing thinking along the lines of, "That's it, I am just going to face all of my fears and get past this nonsense."  That would be equivalent to saying, "No, I have not exercised in any way, shape or form for the last 10 years, but that does not mean it is not a good idea for me to run a marathon today." The key difference between setting oneself up for failure and moving past anxiety is the development of a solid hierarchy, which breaks down how to make contact with anxiety-provoking stimuli in a step-by-step fashion. 
In my next blog, I will further discuss how to create a solid hierarchy/anxiety workout plan. If you are feeling motivated and ready to hit the anxiety gym, I recommend you contact a mental health professional trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or pharmacotherapies, or both. You can search for a therapist in your area on the Anxiety and Depression Association of American (ADAA) website to help you with this challenging, but very important work.

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