Should we really feel the fear and do it anyway? The benefits of exposure therapy for PTSD and OCD

Yep, I’ve nicked that line on fear from one of the in history.

But love it or hate it, there’s something to be said for doing the things you’re afraid of – so long as it’s safe.

And exposure therapy does precisely this – it encourages people to face their fears or past traumas, and can be used to treat and .

Some of this is practised in professional therapeutic settings, but it isn’t confined to the therapist’s room.

I spoke to four people who have faced their fears in a range of different settings.

Testing the water

Paula McGuire is somebody I am massively in awe of.

Despite being so scared of water she avoids puddles, she is planning to swim all the way around mainland Britain.

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This amazing woman, whose fear of water possibly began when she spilled boiling hot water over herself as a small child, is channelling her strength into this amazing challenge.

She says: ‘After the accident I wouldn’t go near large bodies of water without screaming, and it just built from there.

‘I’ve never been hydrophobic – I’m fine with washing! – but even things like going over a bridge or even near really big puddles could bring on the panic.’

So how did she safely face her fear? Paula says: ‘My fight back against aquaphobia started when I took on my Glasgow 2014 challenge, as aquatics was one of the sports so I knew I’d have to face the fear.

‘I began by attempting to go to ‘ordinary’ swimming lessons but could never manage to get from the changing rooms to the poolside because I knew what was coming.

‘Eventually, I was ed by a woman who specialises in phobias of water, and I spent a weekend in Manchester doing lots of work on land, far from any water, just on visualisation and what was going on in my head.

‘At the end of the weekend, we went to a pool and I was able, for the first time ever, to sit on the bottom.’

Obviously the key message here is that if you have a fear of something, like water, you need to face that fear with professional support, and you need to do it safely.

But if you do, it can bring with it great rewards. Paula says: ‘Believe it or not, the water is now the place that I go for calm. It’s strange even saying that, but it’s absolutely true.’

Paula is sharing her full story in a .

Facing the monster

is a popular radio presenter but she’s also plagued by intrusive thoughts as part of her struggles with (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

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Intrusive thoughts can come in all forms, but ones that have particularly upset Anna are around serial killers. She says: ‘I had an absolute fear of serial killers.

‘I worry about what it is that makes someone nasty, and what if that meant that anyone could be nasty? What if I could be nasty?

‘I know it’s all utter nonsense but it is terrifying and thoughts like these in OCD are very common.’

So what did Anna’s therapist advise? This one makes me shudder too….Anna was advised to watch The Silence of the Lambs.

Anna adds: ‘I am meant to do twenty minutes each day of exposure therapy, so I become less upset by the thoughts.

‘It’s about exposing yourself to them and then preventing the anxious and obsessional response.

‘It’s frightening at first, and it can make me shake and cry at times, but it has definitely helped in the long run.’

Opening the door to your fears

Richard Taylor is a passionate mental health campaigner who works hard to tackle the stigma around OCD.

He has appeared on TV alongside Frank Bruno and Alastair Campbell in the award-winning Channel 5 documentary and is Chair of the Youth Advisory Panel at .

Like Anna, Richard was taken through the concept of exposure therapy by his counsellor.

He says: ‘I was afraid of touching door handles so my therapist encouraged me to walk around the building with him opening and closing doors without immediately going to wash my hands and seeing how long I could last.

‘Over time we tried to increase the length of time I spent without washing my hands.’

Eventually, Richard was able to open and close doors without washing his hands at all.

Richard adds: ‘It was really hard initially because exposure therapy forces you to face your greatest fears, do whatever it is you’re scared of and then sit with the feelings of uncertainty and anxiety as they slowly decrease and repeat this process until the anxiety and uncertainty decreases with every exposure to the fears.’

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Telling your story

I personally know of the therapeutic benefits of writing about your experiences – I’ve found that through blogging.

But how does telling your story help people who have experienced trauma?

Shaun Johnson is a former soldier and current actor who is due to appear in a new play, .

The production will see some of his personal experiences brought to life, some of which have been traumatic. So how did he find it?

Shaun says: ‘I was not nervous but grateful for the opportunity to be able to speak about my past trauma experiences with the hope that perhaps someone in the audience may benefit and find a solution to their problems by not feeling alone.

‘I speak with my therapist all the time and he knows I am dedicated to helping others.’

Of course, it’s not without a few ‘tears and tantrums’. Shaun adds: ‘It has been quite a rollercoaster during rehearsals and I was affected in the early stages watching some of the scenes which were quite close to the bone.

‘But the cast are amazing and so supportive of each other making sure that all are safe.’

Shaun says it’s had a huge impact on his wellbeing as his focus on rehearsing, performing and touring has given him a new focus.

He says: ‘Having something fulfilling with the arts certainly helps to heal the inner soul.

‘It can change your outlook on things which before seemed impossible.’

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Shirley Reynolds, Professor of Evidence Based Psychological Therapies at the University of Reading says: ‘As these four fantastic people show us, exposure is a very important aspect of treatment for anxiety.

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‘Avoiding the thing we are scared of is perfectly understandable – but unfortunately it makes things worse.

‘Exposure is extremely difficult for people to do – working with a skilful and empathic therapist really helps because they can help break the task down into smaller and manageable bits, and be there to provide that essential support to carry on in the face of terror.’

, my book about mental health and self stigma, published by Trigger Press, is available now.

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