At some point in recovery, every one of us faces unplanned exposures and challenges that life throws at us.  This is just part of the deal, so we must accept that.  In this episode we’ll answer a very common question.

“How do I handle an exposure that I can’t practice for or baby step toward?”


The Highlights

  • Exposure is not living inside your comfort zone, then only leaving it when forced to. That isn’t exposure.  That’s interrupted avoidance.  There is a difference, so start this topic by understanding that and applying it to your situation.
  • Exposure is planned, consistent, incremental, and is done regularly for a reason – learning to face and move THROUGH panic, anxiety, and fear.
  • Even when you’re doing the work of recovery and doing exposures regularly, life is going to throw unplanned exposures and challenges at you.  This is unavoidable.  Life is exposure sometimes.  That’s just the way it is.
  • We all have to deal with unplanned exposures and challenges. People who are already actively engaged in the recovery process and gaining experience with exposures will generally have an easier (NOT easy) time handling unplanned exposures and challenges.  People that are still living in the avoidance zone will usually have a more difficult time with these situations.
  • Actively engaging in consistent exposures prepares you for unplanned exposures by giving you a greater understanding of the purpose of exposure and what to expect from exposure experiences. Being actively engaged also gives you practice in facing and moving through fear. This makes unplanned exposures more manageable than they would be when starting “from scratch”.
  • If you are waiting to start your exposures … stop waiting. Starting your exposure work today helps you prepare for life in general, but specifically for the unplanned exposures and challenges life will present while on the recovery path.
  • In all situations, a few basic principles apply when handling unplanned exposures.
  • Expect discomfort.  It will be there.  You will experience anticipatory anxiety, you will experience anxiety, discomfort, or even panic when engaged in that unplanned exposure.  This is supposed to be difficult. The discomfort is a teaching tool in recovery.
  • Remember that you ALWAYS handle discomfort, fear, and panic. ALWAYS.  You have never failed to handle that. You hate and fear how it feels, but this does not mean that you are not handling things.  Again, people with experience in exposures have experience that shows them that they can handle challenges.
  • Expect to have to work the “system” in order to respond (or not respond) to anxious sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  Exposures force you to work on moving through fear more productively.  They are supposed to be difficult, so expect to have to work through that difficulty.
  • As with planned exposures, dealing with unplanned exposures is about engaging in a productive reaction before the event (anticipatory anxiety), during the event, and after the event (the story you tell about how it went).
  • Regardless of your recovery status, unplanned exposures and challenges will be just that … challenging.  Being more actively engaged in the process of exposures and recovery makes that challenge more manageable.

One final note.  There are many reasons why you may not be actively engaging in the exposure and recovery process. You have your reasons.  I am not calling you out for not starting yet.  But I am encouraging you to start!  If you want to know how to handle unplanned exposures and challenges, the answer is to start doing planned exposures as soon as possible. I know you may be waiting to be “ready”, but you will never really be ready.  Ready comes after the doing.  I’m cheering for you.  I know you can do it.

See you next week!


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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)






Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.