In this episode, Naomi talks listeners through the exposure technique and desensitisation theory. It is her hope that by having a basic awareness of these techniques that you can apply them to other contexts when it is safe to do so – e.g., working through areas of resistance, blocks and fears – to help expand options for moving forward.
Listen to this episode
What you will learn:
- About the exposure technique.
- About the desensitisation technique.
- How to apply these techniques to work through areas of resistance, blocks and fears, and to help expand options for moving forward.
Featured / Referenced:
- Psychology by Burton, Westen and Kowalski
- Ep8: Process Fears & the Inner Critic
- Developing Coach Collective
- 1-on-1 coaching with Naomi
Prefer to read? Download the full episode transcript:
Read the full episode transcript:
You are listening to the Dream For Others® podcast with Naomi Arnold, Episode 17.
Dream For Me, Dream For You, Dream For Others®. And now your host, award-winning life and business coach, Naomi Arnold…
I hope your day has been treating you kindly so far and if not that things get at least a little better for you soon.
I’m joining you today to share a theory that I was taught back in my psychology degree that I find comes in handy still today in different contexts – both when I’m trying to work through a problem myself that I’m unable to find traction on and also in coaching sessions with clients.
I thought I’d share it with you today, in case you end up finding it helpful in one of these contexts too.
Now it’s called, and you’ve probably heard of it – the ‘exposure technique’. Some people sometimes get it mixed up with or use it interchangingly with the term ‘desensitisation’. So we are going to briefly explore both of those today.
Now before you think “oh I know what that is and hit pause on the recording”, bear with me. A lot of people have been taught that the technique can be used to work through diagnosable phobias – and sure that is true. But, I like to use it in other contexts too and you might find thinking of it in this different way useful as well.
Now for those who haven’t heard of the ‘exposure technique’ or ‘desensitisation’, what are they, you might be asking.
Technically desensitisation is a cognitive behavioural technique that therapists might use to assist clients or patients with mentally confronting phobias gradually while in a space that inhibits anxiety.
It usually involves four phases.
- The therapist will teach the client relaxation techniques – they might include breathing exercises or perhaps tensing and relaxing body parts or mindfulness strategies.
- They will then question the patient about their fear or phobia. In doing this, they will get a gauge on the hierarchy or scale of fear – so what might bring on low level anxiety through to high level anxiety.
- The third phase is where the desensitisation process begins. The client is invited to practice the relaxation techniques they’ve learned and then the therapist will assist them in vividly imagining the scenarios that bring on the fear or anxiety – starting at the lower end of the scale. As the client gets more comfortable with that lower end, they then move up a notch, aiming to work through to the highest level in the scale or hierarchy.
- Then in the fourth phase, the therapist will invite the client to confront the fear in real life. Again, they will use the relaxation techniques they’ve been taught, and starting at the lower level of the scale in terms of anxiety, work their way up to the higher end of the scale.
I remember reading in my psychology textbook (which is written by Burton, Westen and Kowalski – I’ll pop a link in the show notes), a couple of case study examples. So one was of a lady who feared babies – who in the beginning couldn’t even look at a picture of a baby let alone approach a baby.
Then one of the other examples was of someone who feared being in a car after having experienced a prior car accident. So in this example, after being taught the relaxation techniques, they would use the visualisation exercises to work through imagining looking at the car, imagining hopping in to the car, imagining holding the steering wheel, starting the car, through to driving, through to driving in different conditions. And then were invited to gradually do these activities in between sessions in real life too.
So this is, in brief, desensitisation. It doesn’t get into the WHY or what the fear means or reasons for its origin or internalised beliefs or anything like that. Instead, it works on retraining or extinguishing a fear response.
The exposure technique is a related cognitive-behavioural strategy. It is based on classical conditioning and exposure, but it doesn’t involve the imagining phase.
So the exposure technique presents clients with the actual phobic stimulus in real life. It can be really effective for working through simple phobias.
There are a few different ways the exposure technique can be employed.
It might be through flooding, which is where the person confronts the phobic stimulus all at once with the hope they will realise it isn’t as catastrophic as they first believed. So, for example, if you’re afraid of elevators, you’d be riding an elevator with your therapist and then you’d be riding an elevator on your own as the symptoms subside.
Then there is graded exposure, where the person is gradually exposed to the phobic stimulus. So this technique, like desensitisation, begins with the lower end of intensity and then works its way up to the higher end of the scale.
And then with technology, they also have virtual reality exposure therapy. So this is where the person is gradually introduced to the phobic stimulus virtually. They’ve used this a lot for example with people who fear flying.
So a key component of exposure therapy, no matter how it’s delivered, is that it aims to prevent the client from avoiding the feared stimulus and closing any of the ‘escape hutches’ they may have established to help them not fully confront the fear.
Now that is desensitisation and the exposure technique. I share these with you because sometimes they can be useful to know and apply in contexts where therapy is not needed.
I’m going to ask you to use your discretion here. If you are experiencing a phobia, a traumatising fear, or PTSD or anxiety – please see a therapist. And if you’re not a therapist – please don’t practice on clients with these type of things.
But if you are noticing that you fear something or are avoiding or resisting something that you feel you can work through – you just don’t know where to start there, having an awareness of these techniques can sometimes be useful in finding a more useful way.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you may have listened to a previous episode where I provided my 4-step process for working through fears and the inner critic. I’ll pop a link to that one in the show notes in case it’s useful too.
I bring this up, because in that episode, I shared I had a fear of public speaking and the steps I went through to work through this – which included seeing a coach who specialises in this area.
But one of the other things I loosely lent into my knowledge of the desensitisation theory. I did visualise different scenarios from low levels of fear through to higher levels. I did use relaxation techniques and healthy thoughts to help me through that.
And I did loosely lean into the exposure technique too – in starting small, forcing myself to ask a question in group contexts first because that’s what gave me a lot of nerves and discomfort as well – and then working my way up to starting with small groups, before ripping the bandaid off with a big group.
As another example, I often contextually use this knowledge with my coaching clients too. Of course not to treat phobias or anxiety but to help them expand their options when it comes to working through a fear, block, or area of resistance.
For example, if a business coaching client is scared of being visible online, but really wants to become more visible and they’re ready to start taking steps to do this. Maybe they want to do Facebook lives and engage with their audience more. We can use our knowledge of these theories to help them expand their options, see it’s not either or, and that there is actually lots of options in terms of little actions they can take that might help them feel more comfortable in moving forward.
Will flooding work? Do they want to rip the bandaid off and focus on doing a Live every day until the fear subsides? What might make them feel more comfortable with doing this? Do they want me to be in the audience as they do this to support them, engage with them and cheer them on? What else will help them feel more supported as they throw their hat in the ring?
Or will graded exposure work? Is there a group or page they feel safe in where they can practice? Is there a time a day that is quiet that they can start with? Can they record a video and upload it first, rather than diving right into live? Can they create a private group with no members when they can practice getting comfortable with the technology and process on their own first without watching eyes?
So today I invite you to ponder on any areas that you might be resisting or avoiding. Does knowing a little about these technique offer any sparks or ideas of things you can do to move forward with them? If so, please feel free to let me know if I can support you in any way. Leave a comment on the show notes page, flick me an email, or tag me on social media at @NaomiLArnold #DreamForOthers.
If you’re a coach, you might also like to keep these theories in mind when you work with your clients. Now of course, it should go without saying, you’re not a therapist, so don’t try to be – but if an opportunity presents itself where these theories can help you support your clients in expanding their options when it comes to acting on areas they fear or are stuck on – who knows, it might come in handy!
And if you’re interested in having some support as you practice techniques like this with your clients, you might be interested in my new Developing Coach Collective program too. Feminist Mindset Coach Cameron Airen and myself will be supporting coaches in a 12 month mastermind / co-working / professional development experience, where we will be wearing our supervisor and mentor hats in group calls, as well as teaching specific coaching skills. We’re really excited about it. You can learn more at www.developingcoachcollective.com.
That’s all for this episode! I hope you found it useful and I look forward to sharing more tips that might help you dream for self and others in the next episode.
Are you finding this content useful? Imagine having Naomi in your corner all year for monthly 1-on-1 coaching sessions, unlimited email support and bonus resources. Visit www.naomiarnold.com/coaching for details.