Building a Staircase of Fear

Pick a fear, any fear. Well, maybe not any fear — it should be one that bothers you and that you'd like to do something about (it's probably from your Top Five Fears list; see Worksheet 9-2). The best way to overcome fear is to face it dead-on. Not all at once, mind you, but in steps.

The exposure technique for facing and overcoming fear involves breaking your fear into manageable steps and gradually confronting each one. You don't proceed to the next step until you've conquered the one you started with. You'll know you've mastered a given step when you can repeat the step without getting overly anxious.

Exposure can be carried out both in real life and in your imagination. Some fearful events aren't easy to arrange, such as fear of being laughed at or humiliated, but they're easily imagined. Typically, imagining such events doesn't involve quite as much anxiety as actually experiencing them; however, most people can reduce their anxiety by repeatedly imagining fearful events.

Identifying your fears

The first stage of the exposure technique involves zeroing in on your fear and where it comes from. You construct a staircase that takes you from fear and anxiety to a better place. Your staircase consists of all the situations and activities that evoke your fear. Tackling your fear involves climbing this staircase, starting with the easiest steps and progressively getting a little more difficult. When constructing your staircase, it's important not to make your steps too far apart or you may end up scaring yourself.

You get a pretty nice view from the top, but don't be surprised if the climb challenges you. Just take your time, and use the following example as a guide.

Jason is painfully shy, especially when it comes to women and dating. He has a number of good male friends but trembles at the thought of asking someone out. He tries online matchmaking and finds that engaging in conversations via e-mail is pretty easy. But he stops short of setting up a face-to-face meeting for fear of rejection. Jason vows to overcome this fear on his 30th birthday. His first step is to work through the Gathering Materials for the Staircase of Fear (see Worksheet 9-3).

Worksheet 9-3 Gathering Materials for Jason's Staircase of Fear

1. How does your anxiety or fear begin?

The mere image of picking up the phone to ask someone out scares me to death. Even when I'm conversing with women, my anxiety can get triggered. Gosh, I get nervous when I talk to a good-looking clerk at the grocery store.

2. What activities do you avoid?

Obviously, I haven't had a date in a long time. I avoid going to parties. I avoid talking to available women. I avoid calling them on the phone. I even avoid the staff lunchroom with the excuse that I have too much work to do. My shyness seems to be getting worse, and lately I'm avoiding meeting and talking with new people, even guys.

3. What other situations or activities could your fear conceivably involve?

The whole relationship thing worries me. If I did get a date, I wouldn't know what to do or what to say. And I wouldn't know when to make an advance — that's really scary The one brief relationship I had in college really hurt me, so I worry that if I were to find someone, she'd just reject me, too. Heck, I can hardly even ask for directions from a woman.

4. Do you use any "crutches" or aids to get through what makes you anxious, such as drugs or alcohol? Do you lean on other people to do what's too hard for you to do? Do you try to distract yourself with songs, rituals, or chants?

I have a prescription for a tranquilizer: I take one of those sometimes before I have to talk with a woman. At work I avoid committees and meetings and let my co-workers cover for me.

5. What bad outcomes do you envision occuring if you were to face your fear? In other words, what are the worst imaginable scenarios?

If I try to ask someone out, I imagine my voice shaking and not being able to speak. I would look like a fool. My stomach would churn, and I'd sweat like a pig. And if I did go out on a date, she'd probably laugh in my face or walk away before the evening was over If someone was dumb enough to go out with me more than once, she'd no doubt break my heart.

After Jason completes the questions for Gathering Materials for the Staircase of Fear, he moves on to the next step, which helps him arrange his materials according to how much fear they cause (see Worksheet 9-4). He reviews what he wrote in Worksheet 9-3 and uses that information to identify specific activities that he fears carrying out. He rates each activity on a scale of 0 (no fear) to 100 (worst imaginable fear). Jason takes care to come up with items that cover the full range of fear, from little fear to overwhelming fear and everything in between.

Worksheet 9-4 Arranging Materials for Jason's Staircase of Fear

Fearful Activity

Fear Rating (0-100)

Asking someone out on a date in person.

85 (terrifying)

Calling someone on the phone for a date.

75 (pretty darn scary)

Having a conversation with a woman I don't know.

65 (tough, but manageable)

Eating lunch in the staff lunchroom and talking with the people there.

35 (I can handle this)

Picking up someone I've asked out on a date.

90 (Almost unimaginable!)

Asking for help from a female sales clerk.

25 (piece of cake, but there's some tension)

Worksheet 9-4 (continued)

Fearful Activity

Fear Rating (0-100)

Going to a party.

70 (very tough)

Imagining asking someone for a date and being turned down rudely.

45 (if it really happened, it would be harder than imagining it. But even imagining this scares me.)

Going to the singles' hiking club.

75 (I get nervous thinking about it)

Volunteering at the food bank and talking with female volunteers there.

60 (not easy)

Taking a public speaking class at the Adult Continuing Education Center and talking with as many of the students as I can.

50 (I hate talking in front of others, but it's part of my problem, I think.)

Volunteering to be on the social committee at work and going to the meetings.

55 (not my idea of fun, but I can do it)

Jason next arranges the items with those that arouse the least anxiety at the bottom and those that cause the most fear at the top, thus creating a staircase for climbing out of his fear (see Worksheet 9-5).

Jason next arranges the items with those that arouse the least anxiety at the bottom and those that cause the most fear at the top, thus creating a staircase for climbing out of his fear (see Worksheet 9-5).

Worksheet 9-5 Jason's Staircase of Fear

Picking someone up I've asked out on a date (90)

Asking someone out on a date in person (85)

Taking a public speaking class at the Adult Continuing Education Center and talking with as many of the students as I can (50)

Calling someone on the phone for a date (75)

Going to the singles' hiking club (75)

Going to a party (70)

Having a conversation with a woman I don't know (65)

Volunteering at the food bank and talking with female volunteers there (60)

Voluntee ring to be on the social committee at work and going to the meetings (55)

Imagining asking someone for a date and being turned down rudely (45)

Eating lunch in the staff lunchroom and talking with the people there (35)

Asking for help from a female sales clerk (25)

In Worksheet 9-6, think about the fear you identified at the beginning of this section and answer the following questions. They'll enable you to construct a Staircase of Fear.

Worksheet 9-6 Gathering Materials for My Staircase of Fear

1. How does your anxiety or fear begin?

2. What activities do you avoid?

3. What other situations or activities could your fear conceivably involve?

4. Do you use any "crutches" or aids to get through what makes you anxious, such as drugs or alcohol? Do you lean on other people to do what's too hard for you to do? Do you try to distract yourself with songs, rituals, or chants?

5. What bad outcomes do you envision occurring if you were to face your fear? In other words, what are the worst imaginable scenarios?

After you examine your fear, you can move on to breaking it down and rating the fear associated with each activity.

1. Review your answers in Worksheet 9-6.

2. In Worksheet 9-7, list six to twenty items or activities that you fear carrying out or even imagining.

3. Rank each item on a scale of 0 (no fear) to 100 (worst imaginable fear).

4. If you find that your items have large gaps in difficulty (such as no items ranked between 25 and 55), try to think of some more items to fill in the gaps — you don't want to make too large of a step all at once.

Worksheet 9-7 Arranging Materials for My Staircase of Fear

Fearful Activity

Fear Rating (0-100)

You can obtain extra copies of these forms at www.dummies.com/go/adwbfd.

Surveying sample staircases of fear

Everyone's fears and worries are a little different, but they frequently have much in common as well. Therefore, it may help you to see a variety of staircases that are typical of many of the clients we've seen. These samples cover many of the major types of anxiety. They can help you get started, but remember that your own staircase is unique to you.

Lydia worries all the time. She frets about her family, friends, finances, and even her figure. She particularly worries about traveling and having enough money saved. So when she has a trip planned, she packs weeks in advance and repeatedly calls for reservation reconfirmation. She also balks at making reasonable purchases that are well within her means. Furthermore, she worries about her husband's love. Thus, anxiety drains enjoyment from Lydia's life. Worksheet 9-8 shows her Staircase of Fear.

Worksheet 9-8 Lydia's Staircase of Fear

Planning a trip to Europe for the family (90) Allowing my son to take the trip with his senior class (85) Making myself go buy new bedroom furniture (50) Going for a day without asking my husband if he loves me (70) Going for a day without asking my husband if I look okay (60) Putting off packing for a trip until the day before (50) Going two days without calling my mother to check on her (45) Reconfirming my travel plans once instead of my usual ten times (40) Stopping asking my son about his homework every day (30) Inviting my friend Rebecca to lunch (20) Imagining having a check bounce (15) Leaving the dishes in the sink overnight (10)

Larry is scared to death of flying. Forced to fly for business, he's so anxious that he has three drinks at the airport bar before he boards. After he's on the plane, he has three more drinks and can barely walk off the plane when it lands. Watching the bags go around and around on the baggage claim belt makes him nauseous.

The next morning, Larry suffers through a board meeting with his head pounding and his stomach churning. A fistful of aspirin and frequent trips to the bathroom convince him that he has a problem. He vows to find a better way to deal with his flying phobia. Worksheet 9-9 shows his Staircase of Fear.

Christopher suffers from panic attacks and a fear of crowds. His panic attacks consist of sweating, rapid heartbeat, and a horrible tightness in his chest. When an attack occurs, Christopher feels like he may be dying. Christopher stays away from crowded places. He shops for groceries late at night when few people are around, and he makes all other purchases on the Internet so that he can avoid shopping malls. He feels worst in places in which he thinks he may have trouble escaping, such as crowded movie theaters. Worksheet 9-10 shows Christopher's Staircase of Fear.

If your anxiety includes significant physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing and changes in heart rate, you should consult with your medical doctor prior to treating the anxiety on your own or even with a counselor or therapist.

Worksheet 9-9 Larry's Staircase of Fear

Taking a three-hour flight to New York by myself without drinking (95)

Taking a short flight to Phoenix by myself without drinking (90)

Taking a short flight to Phoenix with my wife without drinking (85)

Imagining myself on a flight that has lots of turbulence (70) Making a reservation for a flight (65) Driving to the airport for my flight (60) Packing for my flight (50) Watching movies about airplanes (30-55 depending on the movie) Driving to the airport imagining that I'm going to my flight (40) Watching planes take off and land and imagining myself on one of them (30) Visiting the airport without flying (20)

Worksheet 9-10 Christopher's Staircase of Fear

Attending a popular movie on opening night (95)

Attending a college basketball game (90) Attending a major league baseball game (85) Going grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon (85) Walking around the mall by myself on a weekend (80) Walking around the mall with a friend on a weekend (75) Going to the mall by myself mid-week (70) Imagining being trapp ed in a big crowd (65) Going to the mall with a friend mid-week (55) Attending a movie matinee by myself during the week (45) Attending a movie matinee with a friend during the week (40) Imagining waiting in line at a crowded theater (35) Going to the post office by myself (30) Going to the drugstore by myself on the weekend (25) Walking around the mall by myself before the stores are open (20)

Creating your own Staircase of Fear

Now comes the fun part . . . well, maybe not fun, but eye-opening for sure. Using the information you've recorded and the samples in the previous section as a guide, you can build your Staircase of Fear.

1. Review the fearful activities you listed in Worksheet 9-7.

2. Pick the least feared item and write it in the bottom step of Worksheet 9-11.

3. Continue filling in Worksheet 9-11, writing activities in the order of the degree of fear they carry.

Try to make your steps reasonably evenly spaced in terms of the amount of fear involved. Thus, if you rate one step a 25, your next step ideally should have a ranking of 30 to 35. If you don't have such a step, try to think of one.

Some of your steps may involve using your imagination. For example, if your fear involves getting ill, we don't particularly advise you expose yourself to deadly viruses. But you certainly can conjure up an image of getting ill in your mind.

Worksheet 9-11

My Staircase of Fear

If you find that developing or climbing a Staircase of Fear is so difficult that you just can't make progress on your own, consult a mental health professional.

For extra copies of this form, visit www.dummies.com/go/adwbfd.

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