In Psychology, “desensitization” is a therapeutic technique that aims to gradually decrease anxiety associated with learned fear responses (such as a phobia of snakes) by pairing a relaxed or neutral response with the feared stimulus.
Most things we fear in modern life are 100% learned. Think about it – one of the top phobias is the fear of public speaking. Rationally, we know that getting on stage isn’t a life-threatening experience. However, as we begin to worry about being judged, looking silly, or making a mistake, our brain interprets this as danger. Instinctively, our body reacts by going into “fight or flight” mode, we start to sweat and feel our hearts pounding in our throats.
Since the primary function of our primitive brain is to constantly scan our environments for danger, when there isn’t a tiger present, it learns to substitute real dangers with imagined ones. For example, we’re not born fearing judgment. If babies worried about being laughed at when falling, they’d never learn to walk. The truth is, for most things, we LEARN fear. We fear losing what we’ve earned – our reputation, a significant relationship, or our jobs. We fear how we compare to others. We fear how we will be perceived in social situations, or fear going it alone.
Arguably, there are legitimate things to fear in the world, however, most of what plagues us on a daily basis does not fit into this category. So, we end up worrying needlessly, losing sleep, and missing out on joyful moments that are all around us.
The best solution I’ve found to overcome these irrational fears when they come knocking is to actually invite them in. Like an old friend, ask your demons to the table and seek to understand them, instead of running away and attempting to resist them. Bringing fear into the light through conscious awareness causes it to lose its power. Sometimes relief can be as simple as pausing to name and accept the fear (e.g., “This upcoming test is making me feel anxious, and that’s ok.”), and then going about your day.
Think of it like a pesky bumble bee. When we panic and start swatting at it or running, we’re more likely to agitate the bee and end up getting stung. If we consciously recognize the bee and continue to go about our business, chances are it will soon move on. Fear is very similar.
Simply put, what we resist, persists. If we want to find greater peace in our lives, we need to expect that bad feelings will come – fear, sadness, anger, guilt – and they will also eventually go. And, usually more quickly if we don’t continue to swat at them. We can be true to our emotions and experience them, but not spin out of control and prolong them.
The reason desensitization in psychology works so well is because it breaks the cycle of pairing the learned feeling of fear with those neutral objects (e.g., public speaking) that won’t harm us, but which our primitive brain has convinced us we should fear.
In the same way we can LEARN fear, we can unlearn it. If we invite it to the table, over time, our fear (or sadness or guilt) will lose its power over us. While it sounds deceptively simple, what we’re essentially doing is breaking the neural connections in our brain that causes us to simply react with anxiety, and re-wiring our connections to be more welcoming of these feelings.
So, invite your demons in when they show up. Soon they’ll be pesky guests just passing through, and you may be surprised at how infrequently they visit.