Empowering Your Teen: The Benefits of Exposure Therapy for Anxiety

A teenage girl developes grit while rock climbing as part of her adventure therapy program at Discovery Ranch South, a teen treatment center for girls and adolescents assigned female at birth

When teens struggle with anxiety, can a little exposure therapy help?

A student, a store, and the most embarrassing things she could think to ask for…

I walked towards my student and said, “Okay, let’s go!” She had no idea where we were going or what we were going to do, but she trusted me. She was obviously nervous, it was normal for her to want to avoid being put in the spotlight as much as possible. We got in the van and she hesitantly asked where we were going.

“To Wal-Mart”, I said.

“What are we going to do at Wal-Mart?” she queried.

“We’re going to do a little exposure therapy”.

Her worried facial expression told me the whole story. I explained that I wanted to challenge her anxiety, push her to ask for help, and encourage her to allow herself to have needs. Success would simply look like learning more about her emotional experience and finding strength in the struggle.

So there we stood, leaning against a shelf of folded shirts. I asked her to rate what the most, the middle, and the least embarrassing things she could think to ask a sales associate for help finding would be. Her reply: a pregnancy test, men’s boxers, and plain old water. So, off she went to find the least embarrassing thing she could ask for: water.

At first, she cheated. She came back with strawberry flavored water and said that she had been confused by the sales associate’s directions and decided to find the closest thing she could think of without asking for clarification. We laughed. It was good to see her laughing at herself. Prior to the last few weeks, I had not seen her do so for months and months. She was more comfortable in her own skin; she could take herself less seriously and find humor in the anxiety she experienced now.

Ever since she had arrived at the Ranch, it had been a struggle for her to be anything less than perfect and what she thought others expected her to be. She would have angry outbursts and blatantly deny that she experienced any hint of anxiety, but not anymore. Now, she was getting a good chuckle at her experience and then allowing herself to feel her feelings and do what felt hard anyway.

I was tempted to send her back to find unflavored water, but it seemed she had learned the lesson.

As the afternoon progressed, she continued to push herself to find the things we had discussed and more. Every time she returned, she had learned a lesson: it’s okay to ask for help more than once; if I didn’t understand the explanation, I can ask again; my needs matter; I can let people help me; it’s okay for me to exist; I don’t have to feel annoyed if I don’t get things right the first time; I can trust myself and others.

When we got back in the van at the end of that afternoon, she talked about how grateful she was for the challenges she had been given. She talked about how she had learned to be clear about her needs, how she was grateful for the trust I had given her, and ultimately how she felt more confident in her ability to surmount difficulties and then believe in herself.

Indeed, valuable lessons had been learned. Wal-Mart had unknowingly helped to teach this young woman that she was stronger than she believed and more worthy than she felt.

I feel so grateful to have been able to participate in this experience with this young woman and I am so thankful for the opportunities I have as a Therapist here at Discovery Ranch for Girls to be given the freedom to utilize resources in the community to help teach these valuable lessons.

I can’t count how many times I’ve walked in and out of Wal-Mart in my life and forgotten the whole event. But, I will never forget the day that we walked through those doors to learn some very valuable life lessons.

It is such a privilege and a gift to be able to work with these girls and their families. I am so grateful for the trust and the humor that she had that day. And I will always honor the privilege I have had of helping her make sense of her life’s story and as she recently said it, “Find [her] soul again”.

Editor’s Note: Many of us have experienced anxiety in one form or another through the years. As you look back, how did you deal with it? How do you deal with anxiety now? Here are some quick tips to better understanding “one of many” approaches to addressing your own anxiety: Three Reasons why facing your social fears might not be working for you

By Marliett Davis, LCSW
Therapist at Discovery Ranch South

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