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How To Desensitize Yourself

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:08pm 1 Comment

Let’s face it, no matter how many pills we pop or tricks we try we will still be anxious from time to time. However practicing the art of desensitization can ensure that we can relax our attitude toward fear and handle anxiety symptoms just a little bit better than we do now.

First lets define what it means to be sensitized. When a person becomes sensitized they have essentially conditioned their body and mind to react to certain physical and psychological stimuli with extreme hypersensitivity.

For example, say you have built up an extreme fear of clowns. Every time you find yourself around clowns subsequently you will have an intense negative reaction. You have unknowingly taught yourself to fear clowns so much that the mere mention of the word brings to mind bad memories and even feelings ( non-associative learning ).

Anxiety works much like any phobia in this way. Anxiety builds up over time and eventually it conditions you to fear things that you associate with fear, negativity, panic, etc.

Moreover sensitization creates a great deal of mental and physical tension that tends to wind us up into tight balls of nervous energy. Once we encounter an anxiety triggering event we release this tension in the form of intense fear, anxiety, and panic.

Despite all this we all still have to live, but the idea is that we don’t want to just live. All people aspire to be happy and as free from pain as humanly possible. Desensitization can help us to achieve the goal of reducing anxiety and help us cope with panic.

Now the two most common means of anxiety reduction are drugs and shrinks. Both have their merits and can help a great deal, but because we can’t always take meds on the road or take along our favorite therapist to every social event we need other tools that can be used at any time.

The process of desensitization is just such a  tool and it has four basic tenets. They are recognizing second fear, releasing tension, controlling emotional reactions to fear, and exposure.

Recognizing Second Fear

This is a concept I first learned from the late Australian anxiety expert Dr. Claire Weekes. This is perhaps the most simple tenet to understand, but also the most difficult to implement.

You see when we panic or get nervous in general it usually occurs in stages. You first become aware of the fear or anxiety, amplify the anxiety, and finally have a panic spasm of some kind. We want to deal with the amplification part of the problem here.

You can identify the amplification or second fear because it is usually experienced in conjunction with phrases like, “oh my god”, “I’m going to die”, “I’m having a panic attack”, etc. You essentially pick up on the fact that you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms and immediately (although unintentionally) begin to project all the tension, fear, and stored up anxiety you have inside of you.

The first involuntary feeling or thought of anxiety is almost always distinct from your secondary reaction. This is your opportunity to calm the fire before it picks up more fuel. In other words, do not add to your fear, and refrain from adding secondary quandaries about what might happen. Only deal with the reality presented to you and nothing more.

You must learn to control the wild imagination that anxiety has fostered for so long, and this is hard to do. But with awareness, practice, and time you can develop this skill to help you reduce anxiety.

Releasing Tension

Of the four tenets of desensitization this is the most straight forward. It involves the release of tension through physical activity. Ideally this would include things like exercise or yoga, but it can include any physical activity that increases your heart rate for at least thirty minutes several times a week.

This physical activity will help release endorphins into your blood stream, loosen major muscles that store tension, and promote feelings of relaxation. Even if you’re completely out of shape and can’t necessarily get all hardcore about it, just be sure to get active.

Emotional Reaction To Fear

Have you ever heard of the term “drama queen”(this includes men)? Sure you have so I don’t have to explain what being a drama queen entails, but I will say that you should not be one. Flying off the handle and being overly emotional about your anxiety will only hinder your ability to control your fear.

It’s o.k. to be emotional, we are human after all, but remember that moderation should take the lead. If you start freaking out emotionally every time you panic or feel anxious you will actually aggravate yourself and invite more fear and tension.


Slow exposure overtime to the things we fear can help us to adjust and recondition ourselves away from fear and anxiety. Some might say, ” what’s the point of exposing myself to fear”? After all being a afraid doesn’t feel good. Well I hate to get socratic on you, but what’s the alternative?

The alternative is non action, which means no results. That’s like a person wishing for a boat load of money but refusing to work, it just doesn’t make sense. We have to do things to get things. Exposure is the act of facing our fears so that down the line we can live with less fear.

The four tenets of desensitization I just laid out take time to master. Moreover, its important to understand that even with recognition and more control of your fears anxiety will still strike. Anxiety will come again on its own because that is the definition of having an anxiety disorder. It is out of control fear and worry that lingers on for long periods of time for no apparent reason.

You will still feel nervous sometimes, you will still get panicky every now and again, but its always worth trying techniques that will help us do more with less fear. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have ‘caught’ my anxiety from going south.

Time after time I’ve been able to reduce my anxiety and handle it effectively, but not because I’m not hit with anxiety occasionally, but becomes I accept my fear and have learned to add as little as possible.

Comments (1)
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So, according to the "exposure" tenet, if I am contemplating finding a new job because of how anxious I get around my bosses, but I am also trying to cure my anxiety, then finding a new job isn't necessarily the right move. I must say I am extremely sensitized around them.


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