What Is Exposure Therapy?

Eileen Bailey Health Guide January 28, 2013
  • Anxiety is a disproportionate reaction or fear to something, someplace or certain situations. The aim of exposure therapy is to relearn reactions to these stimuli so that you no longer fear them. For example, imagine you have a fear of dogs. You find it difficult, or impossible, to walk down the street if you think you might meet a dog along the way. You avoid walking down the street and won’t even go outside if your neighbor’s dog is in the yard. Even seeing a dog on television makes you cringe. Exposure therapy walks you through steps so that you can reteach your brain a different reaction when you see a dog.


    Exposure therapy is used with a number of different types of anxiety:

     


    A trained therapist guides you through a series of steps to help you overcome your anxiety. This helps to reduce feelings of anxiety when faced with a certain situation or an object but can also help you learn that you can face fearful situations and to use the skills in other areas of your life.

    The Evidence Based Behavioral Practice indicates that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure Therapy are the most effective treatments for anxiety and, “most people either maintain their gains or continue to improve after finishing treatment.” [1] Treatment typically consists of between 8 and 16 one hour sessions.

    Taking Fear One Step at a Time

    Exposure therapy works by changing your reaction to a fear slowly. Using the example of the fear of dogs, your therapist may have you:

    • Reading about dogs
    • Look at pictures of dogs
    • Watch a video of dogs
    • Have a dog leashed on the other side of the room
    • Have the dog slowly move closer to where you sit
    • Have you pet the dog
    • Going to a pet store to pet different dogs


    Obviously, this is a simplified example and the entire process may take weeks or several months. Your therapist will determine your steps based on your fears and the intensity of your fears. Since each person is different, you may start the process at having a dog in the office while another person may need to start at an earlier step. Your therapist will guide you through each step, moving on to the next step only when you no longer feel fear.

    In the beginning, you may be uncomfortable or react with intense fear. However, as you work through each step, you should feel your fears begin to subside. You are slowly teaching your brain to react without fear to the object or situation.

    For more information:

    Prolonged Exposure Therapy: A More Effective Treatment for PTSD?

    Exposure Therapy for PTSD

    Exposure Therapy for Specific Phobias

    Exposure-based Treatments

    References:

    [1] “Exposure Therapy and CBT for Anxiety Disorders: Frequently Asked Questions,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Evidence Based Behavioral Practice

    “What is Exposure Therapy,” Date Unknown, Staff Writer, American Psychological Association, Society of Clinical Psychology