Definition of exposure therapy and what to expect

A behavioural treatment technique called exposure therapy is effective in treating a number of phobias and anxiety disorders.

A person will face their fears and worries with the help of a therapist in a secure environment, either in their imagination or in a real-life scenario.

This page examines the many types of exposure therapy, how they operate, and what to anticipate from treatment.

Exposure Therapy Traumas
Exposure Therapy Traumas

How does exposure treatment work?

One form of psychological therapy that can assist people in overcoming their anxieties or anxiety disorders is exposure therapy. It can aid in lowering any anxiety, distress, or dread that a person could have as a result of a disorder or past trauma.

In exposure treatment, a patient is exposed to a scenario or stimulus that makes them feel anxious or fearful. Over time, safe, controlled exposure to these concerns can lessen the anxiety and anguish they experience.

Depending on the patient’s anxiety or problem, a therapist may employ a variety of exposure treatment techniques. The therapist might, for instance, design a realistic scenario for the patient to experience, or they might utilise talking therapy to urge the patient to conceive scenarios or relive upsetting experiences.

What conditions can it treat?

Exposure treatment can be used to treat a number of anxiety and phobia-based conditions, including:

Phobias and panic attack

disordered social anxiety

trauma-related stress disorder (PTSD)

An obsessional condition (OCD)

Effectiveness Generalized Anxiety Disorder Trauma

Anxiety problems can be successfully treated with exposure therapy. After completing their term of exposure therapy, between 60–90% of patients have either no symptoms of their initial condition or only very minor symptoms.

In a 2013 study, 1,931 veterans with PTSD were subjected to prolonged exposure therapy. The researchers discovered that sustained exposure therapy was successful in easing the symptoms of chronic PTSD and depression.

Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety Disorder

Another study conducted in 2013 discovered that story exposure treatment was successful in assisting earthquake victims in China. 22 adult participants were evenly divided into two groups by the researchers. The second group received treatment two weeks after the first group, which underwent narrative exposure therapy right away.

The first group to receive the treatment saw a significant decrease in: when compared to the waiting group.

PTSD symptoms include stress, despair, and anxiety.

How to prepare

Exposure therapy comes in a variety of forms, and each patient will require a particular course of action.

The types of exposure therapy that are available and what to anticipate from each are covered in the sections that follow.

In vivo

A person will confront a scenario or phobia that instils fear or anxiety in real life during in vivo exposure therapy.

For instance, if someone has a fear of spiders, they might gradually work up to handling a genuine spider.


In imaginal exposure treatment, a therapist will give a patient instructions to vividly picture the circumstance or trigger that is causing them fear or anxiety. Since it would not be appropriate to replicate such situations in vivo, this can be a helpful strategy for those who are struggling with trauma.

A person may describe their experience if they have had trauma or PTSD in the past.

Along with talking therapy, imagining the cause of fear or anxiety in a safe environment can help lessen uncomfortable feelings.

Types of Exposure Therapy
Types of Exposure Therapy

Virtual world

Some anxieties are impossible for a therapist to simulate in real life. A therapist might use virtual reality technology to simulate flying for someone who, for instance, has a fear of flying.

To assist lessen feelings of dread associated with, say, flying, this exposes the client to a realistic and comparable experience.

Exposure to the interoceptive

The goal of interoceptive exposure treatment is to elicit physical reactions that patients would later link with worry or distress. For instance, someone who suffers from panic disorder can link a rise in heart rate to a sense of terror or danger.

To simulate similar physical sensations without any sense of risk, the therapist can advise someone to run on the spot in a secure environment.

A client’s concerns or anxieties may be organised in a hierarchy by the therapist and the client. This entails ranking the scenarios in order of difficulty for the individual.

The therapist might then select to confront the patient’s least or greatest fear first. These two strategies may be referred to as inundation and graduated exposure.

Gradual exposure occurs when people gradually expose themselves to more difficult situations, starting with their least frightening worries. This can assist people in gaining the confidence they need to get over a more significant worry.

For instance, if someone is afraid of snakes, they might start by viewing images of snakes. The next step could be to place a snake behind glass in the room, and ultimately to hold the snake.

Flooding refers to the practise of exposing people to their most difficult fears first. After that, they might find it easier to tackle their smaller concerns.

People may just need one or two therapy sessions to get over a problem, or they may need to continue seeing the therapist for a longer period of time.

Continually exposed therapy

Repeated exposure is offered in prolonged exposure therapy, which also includes:

talking therapy, in which patients discuss traumatic events with a therapist to help them make sense of the events and reduce negative thoughts, education about the symptoms and how prolonged exposure therapy can help exposure to situations that may trigger fear and anxiety, such as a soldier who has previously experienced trauma from a roadside bombing starting to drive to overcome the fear

People with PTSD and other traumatic stress disorders may benefit from prolonged exposure therapy.

Prolonged exposure therapy’s steady pace can eventually assist patients in overcoming their fears and phobias.

Depending on an individual’s situation, the course of treatment may change. For instance, some patients may have eight to fifteen one-on-one sessions lasting about 90 minutes each with a therapist.

Who provides this treatment?

Exposure treatment may be offered by therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. A medical doctor with additional training in psychiatry is a psychiatrist.

A psychologist will have graduate- or doctoral-level training. Selecting a health practitioner that has received board certification assures that they have undergone the necessary amount of training and testing.

People can look for a medical specialist with training and experience in administering exposure therapy.

People can look for a medical specialist with training and experience in administering exposure therapy.

A person can look up a health professional’s membership in a reputable association, such the International OCD Foundation or the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapists, to discover a qualified therapist.

Finding a qualified specialist to do exposure treatment is crucial for patients. Exposure treatment that is done incorrectly may exacerbate existing trauma, fear, or anxiety.

Versus deliberate desensitisation

Similar to exposure therapy, systematic desensitisation is a form of behaviour therapy. It involves both unwinding and being exposed to a stressful or anxious stimulus.

Systematic desensitisation works in the following steps and follows the same progressive approach as graded exposure therapy:

The individual will be taught by a therapist how to deep muscle relax their body.

In order to build a hierarchy, the person will rank their worries or concerns from least to most powerful.

Then, either in their minds or in a real-world setting, the person will face their fears, starting with the weakest.

The person will practise the muscular relaxation method they have learnt while being exposed to their concerns.

People gradually increase their resilience to the stimulus and respond less anxiously as a result of the muscle relaxation.

Not all forms of exposure therapy may be appropriate for the use of relaxation techniques.

PTSD, OCD, and panic disorder are just a few of the phobias and anxiety disorders that can benefit from exposure therapy.

People will collaborate with a therapist to confront their anxieties or phobias. A therapist could use fantasy to pique their worries or conjure up a real-world event for them to confront.

A related strategy is systematic desensitisation, but it also employs muscle relaxation to lessen the physical symptoms of worry.

Anyone interested in trying exposure therapy should find a psychologist or therapist with the necessary training and experience.

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