Putting the Elements of your Anxiety into a Hierarchy to Work with Step by Step



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A hierarchy is a breakdown of the scenario that causes you problems. Each step is attempted separately and overcome before proceeding to the next.

That way, by the time you reach the most difficult and scary parts, you will have become skilled at applying the necessary techniques and you will also probably have reduced your general negative arousal level in any case.

When we attempt to overcome a fear or phobia of some kind, or face situations which cause us too much anxiety (negative arousal), we need to work at it in a logical manner, step by step.

As explained on the page about the survival instinct, when we respond to a startle warning with more negative arousal, the survival instinct will lock our ficus onto whatever is threatening us.





That means that the more scared or anxious we become, the harder it will be to take our mind off the source of the fear because our instincts are forcing us to keep focusing on it.

Therefore, in order to retrain the survival instinct not to trigger such warnings, we have to respond to them by reducing the arousal rather than letting it increase. We do that by responding to the warning with Dead Weight and Breath Focus or Calm Scene, or even just by Blanking if that is all that's needed.

Why it's best to use a ladder when overcoming anxiety

Many people make the mistake of attempting to cure themselves in the most difficult and demanding situation first. Then they fail and decide that the technique doesn't work. The truth is that the technique does work but it has to be used properly.

By attempting to release negative arousal in the scariest situation you are also fighting the strong pull of the survival instinct to make you run or fight. Really you stand no chance as a novice.

You must first become adept at applying the technique when under pressure. This is done by using it initially in those situations which are only mildly scary and in which the negative arousal is there but not to a great extent.

It is easiest to retrain the least threatening warnings first. It is almost impossible to succeed first with the most difficult. Furthermore, each time you attempt to cope with the most difficult situations and fail, you are, in effect, retraining your survival instinct to keep giving them!

The only person who can write your hierarchy is you. The exact features of situations which cause you anxiety are specific to you, although there are general patterns. Two people who have a fear of spiders would probably create slightly different hierarchies.

I have described here an outline of a hierarchy for someone who is afraid to go into supermarkets for fear of having a panic attack. You may find that there are some steps that don't apply to you i.e. they don't bother you at all. You may also find that steps which cause you great anxiety have been omitted. That's why you need to think it through, maybe using these examples as a guide, and write your own.

Possible hierarchy for fear of panicking in supermarket

The steps given here go from the easiest scenario to the most difficult.

You must start with the easiest and only move onto the next step when you are completely comfortable with the one before it.

Step 1.

Go to the supermarket with someone else. That other person is going to do the shopping. You have the car keys. You are going to just walk up to the doors of the supermarket, then turn and return to the car. You must do all this whilst remaining calm and giving yourself thoughts about how good it feels to be out and about today.

Under no circumstances do you try to enter the supermarket.

Repeat step 1 until you can do it happily.

Step 2.

Same as Step 1 but this time you are going to just step inside the supermarket. You are only to stay there for a minute at the most and you must leave again whilst still feeling calm and in control.

Step 3.

As Step 2. but this time you may browse the magazines just inside the entrance. You don't buy anything and you leave whilst you still feel completely calm.

Step 4.

This time you go in with the person who is doing the shopping. You have agreed to go and collect one item that's on the shopping list, put it in the trolley, then leave the shop.

At all times whilst in the shop you must be focusing on what you are doing and looking for. You must not focus on how you feel.

Step 5. and further

You now gradually increase the number of items you add to the trolley. All the time you must remain calm. If on any occasion you begin to feel anxious you simply leave the shop and return to the car to compose yourself.

You mustn't dwell on the anxious feeling or let it get bad before leaving the shop.

You will appreciate why you need to be there with someone else. You must at all times in the early stages be able to just walk away.


Once you have created your hierarchy you start with the situation at the easy end. You then work on that situation by putting yourself in it and whenever you feel your arousal level increasing, you go Dead Weight and either blank, practise Breath Focus or engage with your Calm Scene. You only move on when you can take that first step without getting any raised negative arousal, that's the point of creating the hierarchy in the first place - it ensures you proceed in a logical sequence from the easiest to the hardest.

You can't afford to become impatient with the process because impatience = negative arousal and so you will only be retraining more bad habits rather than getting rid of any. Progress may seem slow at first but it will speed up as you practise. 

The same principle applies to any situation where you are anxious. Re-learn being there whilst focusing on things around you rather than on how you feel. Eventually your brain will learn to stop giving you startle warnings and the panic habit will become a thing of the past.



Techniques for feeling generally calmer

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ladder symbol representing use of a therapeutic hierarchy







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