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Embrace the Difficult through Exposure Therapy

Andrew Noelker

WhiteFlag Ambassador & Guest Blogger

For four years straight I was self-medicating with nicotine and using bad coping skills to avoid all my problems. What did that look like? 2am walks/drives to buy disposable vapes and nicotine pouches, playing video games for four to six hours per night diving into a different reality, and keeping all of my thoughts/emotions bottled up and only letting a few people in. It’s hard to determine whether the things you are doing are helping or hurting you, in the moment.

You know, during that time, I truly thought these actions were helping my mental health. Life has an interesting way of humbling you, though. In 2022, my anxiety was at the all-time worst it’s ever been. I spent two weeks waking and going to bed experiencing panic attacks in January, then in July I went three weeks not being able to leave my house. That’s when I knew it was time to get some extra help.

Forty days. I spent forty days in two separate residential facilities. At some point I’d love to discuss how much residential facilities can help someone struggling mentally. It’s not a scary place; it has inherited a negative connotation from bigoted people over the years.

In September, I returned home feeling fresh, renewed, revived. Here’s what I learned: My poor coping skills were decreasing my mental limit day by day. The only way to reverse the damage and improve my mental stamina was to embrace the difficult. Fail more often. And exposure therapy is the major component to this idea. I was introduced to exposure therapy during my stay in my second residential facility. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Exposing yourself to your fears and facing them head on.

Although it might sound super scary, I was devoted to getting better. I was done hurting those around me, feeling purposeless, and harping on negative situations. It was time. Time to get up and do something. I want to preface that everyone operates in different ways. Some people prefer talk therapy, meditation, or just hitting the gym more often. To each their own. I am here explaining another option that might be more helpful, if you are looking for a different approach to get better. It’s a system that requires action. If you struggle holding yourself accountable, this might help you. If you see a talk therapist you most likely talk about things you are going to work on and improve during the time until your next visit with them. If you were like me, doing these things on your own feels pretty impossible. Exposure therapy, confronting your fears in a safe environment, promotes immediate development. Think of your worst fear. During your 1-hour appointment, you might spend 30-40 minutes doing actionable tasks that are related to your fear while attacking those negative thoughts that may arise.

For those that don’t know, I was diagnosed with panic disorder. In the past, during tough times I would have frequent panic attacks which in turn results in an ongoing fear of having another attack. My way of coping? Avoiding all places, people, events that might induce panic. Every single thing had to involve some sort of comfortability and if it didn’t, I would avoid it. 2019 was when I noticed it starting, I skipped some classes to avoid the chance of having a panic attack in class. Some classes turned into a lot of classes. I adopted the “bad student” routine and cared less and less about academics because I thought the more I’m able to not care, the less I will panic and be stressed. I was barely getting by. I am smart. I had straight As in grade school and I maintained a 3.4 GPA in high school. It was the fear of stressing so much that I would have a panic attack that transformed me into the way I had become. Over time, it becomes habitual.

Like a parasite, it needed to control more. In 2021, I had a panic attack on the bus coming back from a baseball trip in Georgia. So, the bus was now no longer a safe space. I know, it’s so irrational but that’s how my mind operated and as a student athlete you have very little time to make mental health a priority. During that time, I was severely depressed so when I saw a therapist during that summer, I was more focused on loving life again. I threw my panic disorder on the backburner and convinced myself that once my depression got better, my anxiety would, too. In 2022, the snowball came to an end. No one could get me to leave the house because my house was the only safe place left. There was nothing left that I could avoid.

The past few months working with my therapist, I have exposed myself to my fears. We’ve produced panic attacks so that the more I experience them the more comfortable I will be with being uncomfortable. I’ve spun in a chair to make myself nauseous and dizzy (which is what I feel when having a panic attack) provoking a panic attack. We’ve gone to grocery stores, asking random people stupid questions to alter my social anxiety. I have learned that the more I expose myself to my fears, the easier it is to transform my irrational thoughts into a strong, champion mindset.

If you have noticed that you have developed a similar avoidance behavior, please look into exposure therapy. I get it, it seems really scary. But the avoidance grows if you don’t do something about it, which could lead you into some really dark places. Just remember, you are so much stronger than how you feel. It just takes a little to unleash that extra motivation to get up and keep going. If you find yourself in that dark place, please reach out. Download the WhiteFlag App and raise your WhiteFlag. There are so many people, like me, that want to help you. I promise, you will make it through.

Stay true to yourself. Spread positivity. Love others.

Alright. Gotta go. Bye.

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