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Expose Yourself: Anxiety, Fear and the Art of Graded Exposure Therapy

This sign is actually supposed to be about real estate (‘position, position, position’). But another form of exposure crossed my mind when I saw it (and not the lewd sort either).

For there’s yet another kind of exposure that’s worth exploring – graded exposure therapy. And interestingly enough, that also involves position in a way; the art of positioning yourself in a different place in relation to your fears.

So how does it work?

Graded exposure comes from a place of deep rationality (something that fears and anxiety don’t always base themselves on).

It takes you out of that internal realm of the dark imaginings of the mind and gradually brings you back into the external world. It asks your inner fears and anxieties and dreads to come out of your head and back into the light of day (where they’re usually reassured that it just isn’t anywhere near as bad as they presumed it might be). It invites you to get a bit more forensic about the problem and really experiment with it – find out the actual result, not the imagined one – and in the process, to discover your true experience of the world.

But how?

Well, very slowly for a start. That’s what the ‘graded’ part’s all about. Gradually taking very small steps. Very surmountable steps.

And often the first step doesn’t even involve moving from wherever you are right now. Because whatever your fear or phobia or anxiety currently revolves around, you can start to address it right here, right now.

For graded exposure can start with the simple act of visualization. Just closing your eyes, relaxing your body and putting yourself in the situation you feel challenged by. Notice what you ‘see’; be aware of all your other senses in this environment (texture, smell, noise, temperature). Just spend a few moments ‘being’ in that moment with the thing you fear.

And then imagine yourself handling it ok.
Doing well, even.
Just staying relaxed as you think through how you’re dealing with this challenge.

Then, again in small steps, and over time, gradually start to bring some aspect of your fear into your real life (not just the visualization).

Get physically closer to it – maybe in the same room; maybe in the same building – wherever feels reasonable to start. Just be around it in some way. Give yourself the chance to become acclimatised to it, accustomed to it. And just keep getting closer.

All of this is what cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) calls “behavioural disputing” – testing your theory in the real world with your own behaviour. Testing your worries against what really happens. Following the ‘what ifs’ and actually finding out what does happen. Discovering that the dire consequences we imagine to be linked with a particular event may be only thatimagined.

The alternative, letting your fear dictate more of what you do, and avoiding anything or anyone or anywhere that triggers it, can leave you marooned in an ever-shrinking world.

And perhaps it’s worth remembering this:

everything you now encounter and do in your life,
you once did for the very first time.

All those things which now come easy, were once foreign territory – new and perhaps even confronting. Maybe even fearful.

Yet, you overcame that fear. The challenge. The risk.
So you’ve done this stuff before.
In fact, you’re pretty practiced, when you think about it.
We all are.

So perhaps it’s just a matter of ‘exposing yourself’ to the possibility of continuing that legacy. ‘Positioning yourself’ to keep on growing. To keep expanding yourself and your world, both internal and external…


Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar
Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a writer, blogger and Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She was the former editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.
Expose Yourself: Anxiety, Fear and the Art of Graded Exposure Therapy

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2011). Expose Yourself: Anxiety, Fear and the Art of Graded Exposure Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2019, from


Last updated: 8 Feb 2011
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