“Q Train” by Nigel Van Wieck (collage)

Exposure Therapy

Exploring fear and self-delusion

“But there is no reason to live and no limit to our miseries if we let our fears predominate”

– Seneca

Preamble

What is your impression about the modern world? Is it an isolated and cold place to be?

Are modern technologies helping us to build more and better connections towards each other? Or is technology alienating us to an increasing extent from normal face-to-face communication with other human beings?

One sad fact is indeed: a considerable percentage of the 21st century western population suffers from irrational fears, depression, and social anxiety, which is not only sad but unacceptable.

What are the consequences of such fears for the individual?

When something is a threat to survival for an animal, there are three possible hard-wired auto-responses1:

1 the responsible area in the brain that triggers one of these reactions is the limbic system, one in terms of evolutionary processes old structure in the encephalon

  • Fight the foe
  • Flee the threat
  • Freeze (to get invisible)

The first two reactions are summarized in scientific contexts as a “fight-or-flight” response.

When you think about it, these reactions are quite reasonable if you have to face a predator in the African savanna.

But that are really bad reactions in social encounters, or if you want to approach a potential mate (the threat is therefore not physical but solely mental).

Introduction

I don’t want to explore the possible causes for depression and social anxiety (what includes approach anxiety).

But I want to illustrate a possible cure for these crippling anxieties which make one’s life bare, empty and unsatisfying.

However, it is no action plan for curing your social anxiety. It was a strategy for curing my social anxiety and getting better in social interactions.

You might find something valuable in this article, but you should be careful about conceiving your own strategy if you are suffering from anxieties or mild forms of depression (I would recommend psychological supervision here).

Exposure therapy

The most natural thing for a human being is, or should be, talking to other human beings.

That is a fortiori true when you are interested in building social circles or seeking for a spouse.

But what if you feel highly uncomfortable when a person of your interest enters the room? Or when you generally feel uncomfortable in social situations?

I’ve felt always uncomfortable in social situations. If a pretty girl was around, my heartbeat went up and I went silent, afraid of saying something stupid.

Rejections bothered me for weeks, and sometimes months.

I was seeking validation from women, and the more I craved for it, the less I was getting.

After a long term non-existing dating-life, I was forced to do something about it.

As I’ve yet illustrated on this blog, consistency and persistency over an extensive period of time are the basic requirements if you want to learn a new skill and get good at it.

And being comfortable with women (or people in general) is definitely a skill that everybody can acquire if he really wants to.

Facing your demons

I’ve always been seeking validation from other people, and used to hate even slight rejection to the guts. My self-esteem was a fragile structure which collapsed easily.

But Intellectually I was at least able to admit that my big ego was an obstacle, and that without failures and a trial-and-error process there will be no progress in life.

It must be about ten years ago as I left my apartment frequently and exposed myself on a regular basis to my primary anxiety-sources, until these activities eventually became a habit which didn’t demand a great amount of mental effort anymore.

But I was not aware of this process in the first place.

It crystallized finally in retrospect one or two years ago, after thousands of hours of action-taking (and after I got in contact with people with similar issues).

Social anxiety

Social anxiety is a quite common disorder among adults which impairs one’s ability to interact in social encounters adequately .

In my (not clinical) case, the cure for this anxiety was more or less self-evident – mingle with people immediately.

It was absolutely toxic that I spent most of the time at home (with the exception of going to my workplace or doing solitary sport like running). I was living inside my head, daydreaming, regretting lost opportunities, and feeling sorry about myself.

It was a blessing that I discovered Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (and later Acroyoga), that offered me a very genuine interaction with people because of the close physical contact. Here there was no space for bullshit or rambling thoughts.

I also started going out alone regularly to bars and nightclubs. This was even more outside my comfort zone as all my sports classes.

As a teenager, I hated bars and nightclubs.

Since my assumption was that these are the only places to get to know girls, I acted incredibly awkward and outcome-dependent. Talking to girls never worked, so the cycle of walking home alone after a couple of hours completely embarrassed repeated itself constantly.

The scenario changed after the course of many years (I still don’t feel 100% comfortable in clubs) as I considered interactions with people simply as an end in itself and no longer with that outcome-dependence (and after all kinds of rejections you can imagine).

Approach anxiety

If you are not able to approach a girl who could be a potential romantic interest for you, then you have approach anxiety.

Every guy I know has approach anxiety to a certain degree, but most of them live in a state of denial about it (the consequence is that they don’t approach a lot of girls over the span of their lifetime, and a great percentage of these guys eventually chose the comfortable way into the very first relationship-option that presents itself).

Even with the best information available, fighting against this anxiety is very tough.

To get rid of my approach anxiety I executed a very straightforward procedure at the beginning stages (in hindsight, I would not do it exactly this way again).

I went to a bookstore and asked girls directly if they want to grab a drink with me.

I asked girls at the bus-stop if they had any plans for the evening.

I stopped girls on the street and asked them for their number.

This absolutely terrorized me at the very beginnings, and made me shudder afterwards.

But I got better. After dozens of such encounters, the pain of rejections and awkward interactions diminished more and more.

I even got sometimes numbers and real dates with this raw method.

Which was not the primary goal in the first place however.

The goal was to acquire basic skills to interact with the opposite sex so I can talk to them in a natural way whenever I want to.

And what many of my female friends can now confirm – I almost reached that goal.

Some thoughts about counseling

Of course, I made also use of psychological treatment over the years.

It didn’t work for me.

Talking about and thinking about problems was always solely a temporary dissipation device (and worse, I started even more overthinking all the crap in my head).

It never lasted long. It never replaced hands-on action. After all, it was a waste of time.

Conclusion

Writing this article was very challenging and took me almost one month and a lot of discarded drafts.

I revealed some details of my personal development in here with the reminiscence of many bad emotions.

I feel much more content compared to my 30 year old self because of all that effort I’ve put in during this decade. It was not thinking, writing, or talking about intangible nonsense. I took action.

Treatment of social anxieties or approach anxiety needs basically an executable action-plan in a structured environment (under supervision in severe cases, as I mentioned in the introduction).

After hundreds of hours of exposure therapy in such an environment, you literally re-program parts of your brain.

In terms of relationships and a dating-life, this self-imposed mental treatment has worked very well for me.

Featured image: collage of the painting “Q Train” by Nigel Van Wieck (1990)