Exposure Therapy: Facing Your Fears, One Step at a Time
You master the fear. Then you move to the next step.
Dennis S. Charney, MD, is the Dean of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and a world expert in the neurobiology and treatment of mood and anxiety disorders. He has made fundamental contributions to the understanding of neural circuits and neurochemistry related to human anxiety, fear, mood and discovery of new treatment for mood and anxiety disorders. He later expanded this area into pioneering research related to the psychobiological mechanisms of human resilience to stress. He's a professor of neuroscience at Mt. Sinai.
A prolific author, Dr. Charney has written more than 700 publications, including groundbreaking scientific papers, chapters, and books. He has authored a many books, including Neurobiology of Mental Illness (Oxford University Press, USA, Third Edition, 2009); The Peace of Mind Prescription: An Authoritative Guide to Finding the Most Effective Treatment for Anxiety and Depression (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004); The Physicians Guide to Depression and Bipolar Disorders (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2006), and Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan (Cambridge University Press, 2011). Dr. Charney’s most recent book is Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges (Cambridge University Press).
How do you get better from having too many fears that might be inhibiting your life? One is you have to face your fears. I'll give you a couple of anecdotes. One is personal in terms of my own family. I have five children and when we were raising our children every year we would go to a national park in the United States. We would go camping and hiking and climbing and so forth and at some point some of my kids weren't so excited about that and in fact, they were becoming fearful.
There was one episode when one of my daughters - she was around 12 or 13 - we were hiking up a mountain and the clouds came in and we got a little bit lost and she became afraid and she said to me that she "despised me." It came from her soul.
I didn't take it personal and over the years we continued to do the camping and my kids were a little bit out of their comfort zone, but they were able to overcome that. What happened to that 13 year-old girl who said she despised me on a mountain? Well now she is 30 years-old and a mother and last winter she went to Yellowstone National Park in the winter climbing mountains. Even though she was afraid I didn't totally respond to that and over many years it became a very enjoyable part your life. You want to face your fears, but you want to do it in a way that is one step at a time, so if you're afraid of something you approach it one step at a time. You master the fear. Then you move to the next step. You master that fear and before you know it you're where you want to be. That's called exposure therapy.
Even the Special Forces, when we interviewed the Special Forces to ask them how did you train yourself to get in an airplane, which they do, in the middle of the night, parachute out of that airplane into enemy territory and have to do some really dangerous things. How did you get to that point to be able to handle that fear? And he said, "One step at a time." Face your fears.
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