How To Effectively Use Exposure To Eliminate Fear And Skyrocket Confidence
Join Dr. Aziz in the second half of his interview with internationally renowned psychologist and host of the hit TV show Hoarders, Dr. Robin Zasio, in this fascinating interview about mastering our fears.
In this episode you will discover:
=> How to make exposure completely life-transforming and make sure that it sticks.
=> How to work your way up to more challenging experiences.
=> How to unlock the power of repetition of practice.
Click below to hear this episode!
Dr. Robin Zasio, Psy. D., LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been specializing in treating OCD and anxiety disorders for the past 20 years. To find out more about Dr. Robin Zasio you can check her out at Anxiety Treatment Experts.
Welcome to another episode of Shrink For The Shy Guy. I’m your host, Dr. Aziz. I was practicing my auctioneer voice there. See how fast I can talk. Welcome to today’s episode of the show. I’m talking fast because I’m excited to share with you the second half of my interview with Dr. Robin Zasio.
It is chockfull of super liberating stuff. I mean, I got to say, I’ve been doing this work for many years and just talking to her you’re just going to feel more inspired. You’re going to feel, I mean, you’re going to learn some really powerful strategies, in fact especially in today’s episode we’re going to talk about how to make exposure stick, how to get the most out of exposure which is facing your fear. How to make it so that you don’t have to just keep facing… every time you face the fear you don’t have to feel that same level of fear again and again and again.
So like you’re going to speak up in a meeting and you have a flash of anxiety or a spike of adrenaline, you don’t want to have that the 30th time you speak up in a meeting. You want to learn how to make it that after the first five, seven, whatever your number is, some things take more or less time depending upon your experience with them, but you want to make it that overtime gradually it becomes less and less and less anxious to where it’s just no big deal. And there is a real powerful strategy and distinctions that Robin shares that’s going to help you do that with exposure among ton of other things. So I’m super excited to share this with you. And last week, at the end of the episode and your action step, I encouraged you to create your own fear hierarchy, if you haven’t done that, do that now. That is going to help set you up so that you can learn the second half of this stuff in this interview, that’s going to help you put into practice immediately. So, enough of me prepping you, now, let’s jump back into that interview with Dr. Robin Zasio.
Dr. Aziz: Absolutely. And I think that… you keep highlighting the power of building up because I think if you are building up to asserting yourself with that friend by say, maybe disagreeing with someone at a low level where there’s no risk or saying no to a simple request maybe from someone at work, little things like that that you can build up that muscle then you can handle heavier load, you can handle the more challenging conversation with a friend.
Dr. Robin Zasio: Right. Right. And that’s why, kind of going back to making phone calls that we wouldn’t ask someone to start with asking for a location because that would require for you to be able to write down the directions and stop them if you didn’t understand or go back and say, “Did you mean a left or a right on 12th Street?” That starting with, “What time do you close? Okay. Thank you,” and hanging up the phone. “What time do you close? Okay. Thank you,” and hanging up the phone, just doing that over and over again. And then working your way up to some of the, as you mentioned, heavier loads or the more challenging things that would just require a little bit more sustained contact. So again a lot of people will say, “Well, I want to be able to go to a party,” or “I want a date,” and I can’t do these things and that’s the, well, you’re not going to dig a pool, a hole for a pool in a day that we have to give it time, we have to build up because if there’s a confidence building that happens and I know that that’s really huge on your plate and that is helping people to build confidence. But like anything, I’m an avid equestrian and the place we start is not jumping over a four foot fence, the place that we start is learning how to saddle up the horse, how to groom the horse, how to sit on the horse. And you may be thinking, “Oh I just want to get going. I just want to start jumping.” Well, like anything that can produce dangerous results if you don’t lay that ground work to build your confidence.
Dr. Aziz: Absolutely. And so one thing that I think it’s very important to highlight is when it comes to taking the leap there’s… we need to see, “Okay. What is my fear actually of?” so otherwise this vague danger scenario. And we want to say, “Okay. What am I actually scared of here? What is the prediction and then let me test it and let me see what happens.” Now, do you find people that do that? Does the fear just naturally subside and diminish with just the exposure or do people have to do something afterwards to kind of say, “Hey, look at my prediction, look at the reality, see how they don’t fit,” like, is there anything that you should do afterwards to help someone really change their predictions for the future so not just to scare the next time?
Dr. Robin Zasio: Yes. And so I think that that’s where a lot of people have trouble with exposure is they just go in and they do it but they’re not aware of the thinking process that is so important to attach to it. So again it sounds really difficult but it’s making that phone call or walking into a store and saying, “Okay. I’m going to be aware that right now my fear is that the clerk is going to get angry with me for asking a question. Okay. Here we go,” and then they go ask the question, they find out that the clerk smiled and then that they were very friendly or that they walk them to the location. And then when they’re done with the exposure, to be very well aware that what they feared did not happen.
“Okay. Here we go again, I’m going to walk into a second store and ask for another location of an item.” And then they’re aware when they’re done with the exposure that that conscious thought of what I feared did not happen. Because, in essence what’s happening is there’s chemicals that are firing telling you there’s danger and so those chemicals firing or misfiring telling you that there’s danger when there’s not. So what we’re going to do is through that desensitization process is help the brain to literally see that what they fear doesn’t happen. And so by going in and being aware over and over again that’s actually what stops those chemicals from firing, telling you that there’s danger when there’s not.
And so having that awareness of what you fear didn’t happen is the key. Because if you go in and all you’re doing is grinning and bearing it, what happens is, is you have a spike of anxiety and then the anxiety goes down when you get out of the situation, but then you’re going to have that anticipatory anxiety the next time and the next time and the next time. When you have that awareness of what I feared did not happen or conversely going back to your point of, “Wow. I feared that XYZ happened but it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated, that’s what’s really important in the whole process.”
Dr. Aziz: Yes. And that is a huge insight. Because I think it is very possible and I know I experience that a lot in my life to just do the things that scares us again and again and you can, you can develop a willingness to face fear, a courage, and yet if you’re experiencing that spike every time it can be tiring, it can be exhausting or at the very least it can just take some of the joy out of the things you’re achieving or getting. So I think that’s very valuable tip there, I really appreciate that.
Dr. Robin Zasio: Yes. And I think it’s really liberating too when you’re scared of something that when you face it, it’s liberating. I mean, I think that that’s a great word and you feel almost energized because you’ve gone out of your comfort zone and you’re doing something that is challenging. Any time, I think, we can feel like we are growing and getting outside of our comfort zone and doing things that are difficult, that we feel good because we have challenged ourselves. And I think one other point just while I’m thinking about it that’s important to remember is a lot of people will try to problem solve ahead of time if something goes wrong. So if I walk up and this clerk ignores me, this is what I will do and that is a recipe for disaster because what starts to happen is as you start making this list of all the things that you’re going to do should something go wrong which then exacerbates your anticipatory anxiety and can prevent you from moving forward.
So one example is people that I work with that are terrified to drive on the freeway because they’re afraid they’re going to get into an accident. And so they avoid the freeway and they go surface routes. Well, once we start to do the exposure very incrementally, we don’t have them, you know, 200 miles, we have them get on the freeway, drive one exit, get off, drive back, and we do that over and over again. Well, certainly the risk for getting into a car is possible, but what I found is that if, and this hasn’t happened very often, someone does get into a car accident then they find that it wasn’t as bad as they thought. And in that moment they made a plan accordingly rather than prepare, “If I get into an accident I’m going to do these five things, I’m going to have my cell phone, I’m going to have my insurance card ready, I’m going to have my license ready, I’m going to have little cones where I can block off my car,” and again I know this sounds really silly but people will do that to where they have all those prior preparation just in case when in fact they find out that, “Oh, you know what it was just a little fender bender and it didn’t even mark my car.” Or, “It was a little fender bender but we didn’t have to call the police, we just exchange licenses.” And for many of us if we just go through life dealing with things when they come up or if they come up we have a lot more freedom.
Dr. Aziz: Yes. It can be pretty exhausting and a heavy load to carry to be constantly anticipating and problem solving every situation and every nuance and really reliving or pre-living a lot of painful experiences that aren’t going to happen and then trying to solve them. So I think that is a much more peaceful way to live. And one thing I’m curious about in your years of working with people is what you found is some of the things that are behind the anxiety. What I mean by that is I found that sometimes people are, there’s something that they are avoiding, not just the activity but there’s something deeper that they’re avoiding by being absorbed, they’re really anxious about something and I think this might especially be true in certain aspects of obsessions or even social anxiety that sort of thing. Have you found any trends to things that might be behind the anxiety that people might be distracting themselves from with an anxiety?
Dr. Robin Zasio: Well, sometimes just when we’re dealing with anxiety it’s just chemical in nature. Someone can say, “I don’t know why I feel so uncomfortable in social situations, there’s no reason for it, I just know that I am.” Versus other people, there could be some trauma and one common theme that we are seeing especially with kids is bullying. And bullying just has so many detrimental effects on people and especially as a child when we’re learning about social situations and how to interact with others and our brains are still formulating and peers are so important to us and if you’re bullied that can then create a chemical imbalance which then causes people to be fearful of going into situations. And so by avoiding it does not trigger those memories from the past and how bad that felt but again as you know when you avoid things then the anxiety continues to escalate and grow because it becomes this big huge thing in your mind that perhaps really isn’t that big if you’re willing to test out your fear. And I think it’s hard because when there are psychological factors that are contributing to your anxiety and perhaps you don’t have the financial or other resources to seek help, it can be really, really difficult to work through it. And that’s where I think the self-help industry can be good because you can buy books to kind of help you try to work through it. Every issue that we have in our lives doesn’t require a therapist but perhaps having a close friend that you can talk or reading a book or going online listening to your podcast can be one way that you can start to work through some of that trauma that’s disenabling or limiting you.
Dr. Aziz: Sure. Sure. And one thing I wanted to also ask about which is something, again, another maybe particular use… I think you have so many years of experience that I want to get all the little in the moment techniques that you use but do you teach any sort of breathing technique or anything that you use to help people to manage that spike of fear?
Dr. Robin Zasio: So the key with exposure is the willingness. Being willing to go in to uncomfortable situations and interestingly enough not do anything to try to make your anxiety go down. Because what happens is is we’re tapping into what’s called the sympathetic nervous system, that fight or flight and basically what we’re saying is we don’t want you to flight anymore, we want you to fight this, we want you to go in and test out your fear. And when people pair that at the same time with breathing exercises it actually serves to neutralize that exposure. Because the idea is is testing out your fear and not doing any kind of compensatory behavior to bring down that anxiety because the reality is is you don’t want to spend your life having to do breathing exercises or relaxation techniques every time you go into a social situation. And so while you can take a couple of breaths before you go in to just kind of give yourself that confidence of, “Okay. Here I go.” The bottom line is is that awareness of testing out your fear and that’s how our brain becomes desensitize is by literally being able to confront that anxiety without doing anything to try to bring it down. And then when you do that over and over again your brain gets used to it.
Dr. Aziz: Right. Right. And what about someone doing some exposure where they have… they haven’t done it yet, let’s say they are afraid to speak up… they’re going to lead a meeting at work or do a presentation, there’s going to be a number of people there, it’s going to be an important event and let’s say they were to stay at home before the event and imagine it and then feel all that fear and then not try to get away from it, not try to resist it, just let the fear kind of course through them and they just sort of sit there and feel it and don’t resist it, maybe notice it in their body. Have you found something like that to be valuable beforehand?
Dr. Robin Zasio: So my concern with that would be that if they are at home and they’re just playing out the scenario in their mind over and over again that it would build them and potentially cause more anxiety. So for instance when I was getting ready to take my licensing exam, somebody told me the worst thing that you can do is just keep studying up until that last moment, that the best thing you can do is make a decision to study to a point the day before and then stop and then go with your daily routine and even find a pleasurable activity to do so that you’re not focused on it. Because that focus on it will actually raise your anxiety. And so as hard as it was I made a decision, noon, the day before my exam that I would stop, that I’d put all the books away and be done with it and went on with my day, ended up going to a movie. And while this exam the next day kind of kept sort of falling off this imaginary shelf that I create for myself to not focus on it, I did feel better and I felt actually more productive than just kind of swimming in this exam the next day.
So if someone has a presentation in this example I would say the best thing you can do is go to work and go through your daily routine. And what’s going to happen is is you’re going to get distracted and eventually that presentation will sort of present in front of you but at least you’ve been productive up until that point. But this is the deal, while I realize that there can be situations for people where they go into work and their boss says, “Hey, I need you to… so and so is sick today, I need you to present on XYZ,” those things do happen but more likely people have time to prepare. So this is where the exposure would come in where someone would begin to prepare the presentation and then practice it. So they could practice it just by standing in their house, going through the presentation and then practice by standing in front of the mirror, then practice by doing it in front of a friend and then perhaps two friends, perhaps two friends and a family member and then building that confidence by doing it over and over again to where when they go in they feel much more equipped. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have anxiety but they will likely feel more equipped.
Dr. Aziz: That’s great. I got a great image of someone like giving the presentation in front of their dog and their small children, “Gather around everyone. I want to tell you about the numbers.”
Dr. Robin Zasio: So back in the day and I don’t know what things were like when you had to do your exam but I know for myself we had both a written and an oral exam. And countless times I would just sit at the table asking myself a question out loud and then answering it over and over again. And I really made a point that when I would make a mistake or I get tongue-tied that I would push myself to move through it because the reality is is I can’t start over, you know if somebody asks me a question and go, “Oh, wait, wait, okay, no, that didn’t sound right. Okay. Let’s do this again.” So I would really push myself to try to pick it up or continue if I made a mistake. That’s where I started and then what we did is we got study groups. To where we would all practice going around the room asking people one question and then answering it. And then we would do two questions, and then three questions and then what would happen was somebody was sort of the person who’s going to be on stage who would have to go through a series of questions for about 15-20 minutes from each of the panelist, if you will, so that we work our way up to that experience of if I was being asked a series of questions from a panel of people that you felt more equipped to do so. And it doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t make a mistake or get tongue-tied or not be able to answer the question, but being in those situations repeatedly really built all of our confidence.
Dr. Aziz: Yes. Absolutely. And I think that there is tremendous power that people overlook in repetition, in practice and practicing things that you might not even think that you can practice. Anything that you speak out loud you can practice. And sometimes people think, “Oh, that’s strange or that’s weird.” But I have a similar experience many years ago, I was actually very, very scared to ask someone out and I didn’t even really try for a long time but then eventually I worked up the courage to start talking to the woman I was interested in. But then when it came to… there’s an opportunity to ask someone out, I just wouldn’t do it because I was so scared. And so what I did is I practiced how to do it just like a real casual like, “Hey, do you email?” or “What’s your number?” or something as simple as that. In those moments I couldn’t get it out of my mouth so I went home I just hundreds of times be like, “Hey, do you have email?” and it’s amazing how the simple repetition of something out loud then opens the doorway for us to do it in the situation.
Dr. Robin Zasio: Well, and I think that that’s a great example because I was looking over your website and I saw the picture of you and your wife and then the picture of your wife pregnant and if you imagine that you never did all that practicing where your life would be.
Dr. Aziz: Yes. In the shitter.
Dr. Robin Zasio: I mean, life would be so much different and I think too that in some ways I feel like wouldn’t it be great to have a crystal ball to say, “If you do this then this is what’s going to happen.” And you look at this and you go, “Oh my gosh, there’s no way. I can’t even imagine like I can’t even imagine a wedding ceremony, all these people looking at me let alone asking this beautiful woman for her email.” And it’s like okay, but if you envision that this could be your life, how much better would it be? Because I think you know better than anybody the depression that comes with not doing the things you want to do no matter what they are, I mean, anything. So kind of going back to this very systematic desensitization, I go way, way back to right around 1997 when me and my friend we’re going to go to Mexico together and she said, “Would it be okay if I took some time to go diving?” And I was like, “Of course, it’s your trip too.” And we were making all of our plans and everything and I hung up the phone and a little while later I thought, “Wait a minute, why don’t I dive?” But it wasn’t a matter of putting the scuba tank on and going under water, it was a matter of doing the in class instruction, learning about it, looking at the equipment, watching somebody how they put it on and they take it off. And then at some point then it was just a matter of putting it on and taking it off. And then it was a matter of jumping in the pool and sticking your head underwater. Again, it’s that same process of no one just puts the gear on and jumps in, I mean, I guess in some cases people do.
Dr. Aziz: Unadvisable.
Dr. Robin Zasio: Yes. Unadvisable. Exactly. And that presents with danger because like anything that we’re new at or have a novel situation, we want to build our confidence and of course, gosh, that word just keeps coming up over and over again, so that each step of the way we start to feel just a little bit more comfortable. And honestly I do not recommend that people do what’s called flooding, I think it’s very, very dangerous and I think that there are… the potential for problems is very, very great. And so you might say, “Well, can you explain this,” I know you know what flooding is, but for the listeners, flooding is when you go to the very top of your hierarchy. So that might be something like going to a mall and seeing someone that you’re attracted to and say, “Hey, can I have your phone number?” well, that could be kind of risky. So again it’s a matter of working your way up to a party, working your way up to making conversation and then when it feels right to be able to ask someone out. But not going to the very thing that could support what you fear.
Dr. Aziz: Yes. Absolutely. And what you were saying earlier I really like is this thinking about… I believe we all have a default future, where we’re going to end up if we don’t do something different, if we don’t take a new action, if we don’t try that thing, if we don’t take that risk, we’re going to have a future it’s just going to be very different. And the default future that I had when I was a lot younger was a lot of loneliness, a lot of poor relationships were not the connections that I wanted. But by taking those little steps, those little risks that Robin keep sharing, we build up not just more courage and confidence and less fear but we create a future that can be brighter or field with things that are incredibly fulfilling and give life great meaning. So I think this is a very inspiring interview and thank you so much for sharing all these little tips and I know you have way more knowledge and experience in ways that you can help people grow and you always have a lot of projects going. So what is a great place for someone to find out more about you or learn from you or anything that you’d like to share with people about how to stay connected with you?
Dr. Robin Zasio: Of course. I have a business called The Anxiety Treatment Center and we’re at anxietytreatmentexperts.com, anxietytreatmentexperts.com and you can go to my website where you’ll see information on the different anxiety disorders, what they look like, what you can expect with treatment and just to get a better sense of how to approach the desensitization process. I kind of outline fear, what it looks like, the fight or flight system. And certainly there’s great books out there too, again, not every problem that people have that they need to seek therapy. But the really cool thing is that today there’s so much more mental health awareness and with all of us working to reduce stigma about seeking help and really validating that anxiety is very, very chemically driven and that it can be overcome. And if you’re willing to just take that one step whether it’d be to go get a book or listening to podcast or talking to a loved one or a friend about your fear and asking them to help you that would really go a long way. And I think also to remind yourself that everybody has experience with facing fear of some kind but we don’t really think about that, going to kindergarten that’s a really scary thing for a five-year old to do, to separate from mom or dad or to go in the room with a bunch of kids that you don’t. But most of us did it. And we came to find out that it was actually fun and that developing us some independence from our caregivers was a really cool thing because it led to first grade and second grade and third grade and high school and perhaps even college. So just really being able to get out of your comfort zone and know that your life will be better I think is just so important.
Dr. Aziz: Yes. That is really true and it’s helpful to see where we have taken action, where we have had courage, where we have stepped in to the unknown and grown from it, so just another valuable perspective. Thank you so much for sharing and for being on the show, Robin.
Dr. Robin Zasio: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Aziz: That brings us to the end of the episode, the end of the interview and there’s of course one more thing that we got to really conclude with which is we got to put this stuff into action.
So today’s action step, you probably know what’s coming, and it’s probably been in action that I’ve had in another episode, but it doesn’t matter because it never gets old, do something. Do one of the things off her list, face one of the fears, pick something small, pick the two or the three or the one, whatever your number is, for the lowest ones on your list, pick something and then just do it. Now, if you haven’t created your list, well, make sure you do that first. But then face one of those things and learn the example that she gave in the interview of like if it’s challenging to have an extended conversation on the phone, just start by calling a business and don’t have a long conversation with the person just, “Hey, what time do you close? Great. Thanks.” Call up another one, “Hey, what time do you close? Great. Thanks.” Remember that example from the interview? Well, here’s the thing, you want to just do it until it becomes boring. Just do it again and again and again eventually you’re like, “Oh God, I don’t need to do this anymore,” and that’s a great sign that you’re ready to move up.
So take your list and find something that’s seems really easy and just go do it, give yourself an easy win. You don’t say, “Well, it’s not going to be good enough unless I pick a seven and nail it today,” really just small steps, bit by bit, get that momentum. So pick something small. Pick a one or two, something’s that pretty easy for you to do and just do it a number of times to where it’s almost boring, it’s just like, “Yes. Okay. No big deal.” You might be surprised. If more anxiety spikes, that’s great, keep doing it until it calms down, until you’ve been able to work through the fear through repetition. So go ahead and pick one thing on your list and do it a number of times. Remember, repetition is key. And if you want to practice it ahead of time like we talked about in the interview that can help you as well. So go out… now, get in to action, do something and let me know how it goes. Go to facebook.com/socialconfidence post about your experience there, share. You can also go to shrinkfortheshyguy.com and share about your experience there, send me a message through that as well. So until we speak again, may you have the courage to be who you are and to know on a deep level that you’re awesome.
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