Principle: Exposure, as a principle, is easily understood. If we are fearful, we tend to avoid. Exposure is facing what is daunting but in manageable ‘doses’ until the fear and even paralysis reduces to a manageable level.
The theory is essentially stimulus and response, in which the mind becomes habituated and alarm signals become weaker.
Exposure is simply about facing what makes us uncomfortable. Naturally we will react or become triggered, but this is welcomed not avoided. You can observe that every time you react, it gets a little bit weaker. If you avoid, the reaction get stronger.
There is something of a paradox in the concept of avoidance. We can do all sorts of good things: find a meaningful job, engage in an exercise program, go bushwalking, take up a hobby, join a club, contribute to charity, learn a new skill or socialise with friends. Even doing a good thing ? such as helping a church ? can be an act of avoidance, for example to distract from an uncomfortable emotion. One example of this is hyperactivity to mask depression ? the manic defence. Then the good thing is unlikely to be very satisfying. But facing the uncomfortable emotion, exposure, gives us the space to do good things and find them satisfying. More about this when we consider values and committed living in a later sermon.
How applied in psychology:
Exposure as a therapy comes from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Numerous studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in the treatment of conditions including as generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), and specific phobias.
Let me give you an example of how this might work in therapy. Almost everybody is fearful of spiders to some degree, but this fear can become crippling and result in a constricted life. Exposure would involve a gradual increase in the frightening stimuli until anxiety reduces to a manageable level.
So let us imagine that Cyril becomes frightened of spiders and is unwilling to leave his house. He consults with an online therapist who in the first week asked him to look at Internet images of spiders, initially with as much distance as needed, building up to 10 minutes a day. Exposure would progress to videos of spiders say on Youtube, then increasing the size or closeness. When he becomes more habituated to the stimuli it will be easier for Cyril to leave the house. I’m not suggesting that this is a simple process, actual therapy is sometimes like snakes and ladders with progress up ladders and going backwards with snakes, but if both patient and therapist persist there is an overall progress.
This process has also been called Systematic desensitisation (aka ‘graduated exposure’) – gradually exposing the patient to increasingly vivid experiences that are related to the trauma. There is also the concept of ‘window of tolerance’ in managing an emotion. Some therapists have recommended flooding, but this is riskier and even more uncomfortable, and I suspect mostly unnecessary.
Another application of this is to draw up a hierarchy and find strategies that work at each level. This has been used in anger management, pain management and addictions. I will illustrate with pain management, but the principles are widely applicable.
Ralph injured his back and has intermittent but strong pain. He developed a pain scale from 0/10 to 10/10. This passed through no back pain (0/10), dull ache (3/10), throbbing pain (6/10) to sharp stabbing pain (9/10). Mostly his pain ranged between 4-7/10. He then worked out various strategies, that worked for him, to at least stop the pain escalating so he felt more in control. He felt out of control when the pain was 8+/10 so it was important to get in early. This helped him to face the pain (exposure), not avoid and to objectify it. He could say: I am a 6/10 and I know how to cope with my pain at that level.
When I was a young psychologist, yes it was a few years ago, I was asked to go to the hospital and see a person in extreme pain after a hand-gliding accident. I felt completely inadequate to the situation. I was doubtful that I could help (being a psychologist, not a medical doctor who could prescribe medication). The patient was equally sceptical and looked at me in patient disbelief. But I had to do something, so I worked out a pain hierarchy with him and dreaded my return two days later. To my surprise, he was completely different. He felt in control, and was able to manage his pain. I think it was the small difference of feeling out of control 51% and reducing it to 49%. A small difference but now mostly in control.
How relevant to Spirituality:
We can think about exposure in broadly negative and positive terms. You might have had a negative spiritual experience. Perhaps associated with your Christian faith, then the idea of God, can be frightening. This is especially the case if your picture of God is overly judgemental.
Have you had a traumatic spiritual experience? This can include being abused or bullied by those who identify as Christians, perhaps even worse, some sort of sexual abuse or spiritual manipulation by clergy. We might be hesitant to admit that this can happen, but it does. As the Royal Commission demonstrated.
If this has been your experience, it might be best to talk to a Christian counsellor or mental health professional. It may be helpful to write out the experience, journalling it, and then repeating it out loud again and again. This can allow both exposure and later provide an avenue to rewrite or re-author the experience in a more positive way. Note that making an appointment and reading it to a safe clergy person might add an additional dimension of exposure. But only when such experiences manageable in emotional terms.
It can be useful to have your own place of sanctuary, which can be as simple as a chair by the window in your house or purposely coming to church and sitting the sanctuary. This can be used as a no-go-zone (keeping everyone out). This can give you a buffer and a sense of safety. If God is not safe for you, then don’t invite him into your place of sanctuary. God will not intrude. You have to invite God which is of course the role of prayer.
If God is safe for you then you can practice presence of God. This can be understood in terms of exposure.
You can consciously focus on what is of spiritual benefit. This can include inspirational music, art or poetry. I have a couple of icons, beautiful pictures of Jesus and Mary with the infant Jesus. They are in the Greek tradition, prayerfully painted with strict guidelines. It is called writing an icon. Or listen to music, anything from Bach to Hillsong. Or look at great art such as Rembrandt’s Return of the prodigal son. You don’t have to travel to the Hermitage museum, it is widely available in reproduction and wonderfully inspiring.
Be intentional in what you expose yourself to. It is a kind of spiritual investment. Rilke said, “So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp. It changes us… Into something else, which, hardly seeing it, we already are.”
Portia Nelson wrote an Autobiography in 5 Short Chapters:
I walked down the street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I fall in. I am lost, I am helpless, it isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walked down the same street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again, I can’t believe I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walked down the same street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk I see it is there. I fall in, it is a habit. My eyes are open I know where I am. It is my fault I get out immediately.
I walked down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I walk around it.
I walk down a different street.
Rev Dr Bruce A Stevens is a clinical psychologist and supply minister at GUC.