Meditation as Desensitization

Sunset meditation on a rock in a lake

Research has shown that meditation can help with stress and anxiety. With the rise in war exposed veterans in the US needing treatment, studies are being conducted to see how mindfulness and meditation can help people dealing with trauma. As a psychologist with a regular meditation practice, I have noticed how closely meditation resembles the exposure therapies I use in treating many anxiety disorders.

People who suffer from anxiety or who have been exposed to trauma tend to avoid any stimuli that remind them of their fears or that elicit associated thoughts or emotions. They may also exhibit problematic behaviors intended to soothe, control or “fix”, such as substance misuse, violence, or compulsions. Unfortunately, these strategies only serve to maintain or strengthen the anxiety, prolong their distress, and contribute to problems in functioning at home, work, and in relationships. The very natural inclination to fight against or flee from what feels aversive or dangerous only increases the suffering.

Exposure in psychotherapy is confronting feared objects, events, people, or concepts in a manner that reduces the anxiety and activation associated with them.  With repeated exposure under safe conditions, the individual begins to habituate (or adapt) to the feared or activating stimuli.  Graduated exposure, or systematic desensitization, involves the stepwise confrontation of aversive stimuli in gradually increasing intensity.  It utilizes the behavioral strategy of counter-conditioning, in which stimuli that usually cause a distress response are repeatedly paired with a relaxed or calm response, so that eventually, the feared stimuli automatically elicit a relaxed or calm response on their own.

In meditation, we assume a relaxed yet alert posture, and sit in stillness attending to inner experiences. This quiets the nervous system providing a calm and safe condition within which we can attend to anything that arises. Rather than a therapist directing a client to expose themselves to aversive stimuli, such as distressing thoughts, feelings, and images, meditation teaches us to open to anything that arises naturally. Little by little, we find we are better able to face and cope with difficulty. Courage and trust are cultivated because we begin to see that we can confront discomfort with competence and dignity. In this way, we are increasingly willing to be with whatever is experienced in the moment rather than succumbing to the natural urge to fight or flee, fix or avoid.

People are often better able to tolerate meditation practice over exposure therapy due to these factors – there can be a relatively high drop out rate for the exposure therapies. However, it is important to keep in mind that mindfulness and meditation are currently considered “complimentary” approaches to treating anxiety and trauma and should not take the place of work with a licensed health or mental health professional. For local resources in treating anxiety and trauma, please visit www.kansascitymentalhealth.com.

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