If you’ve ever experienced trauma, anxiety disorder, or panic disorder, then you may have realized just how much it can control you.  For many people, exposure therapy may be a way to regain that sense of control, and ultimately overcome your fears.

This article covers the basics of exposure therapy, how it can help, and what you can expect if you're suffering from severe anxiety or phobias.

What is exposure therapy?

Exposure therapy is a psychological technique that involves gradual, controlled exposure to the thing you're afraid of through repeated and prolonged contact. With the guidance of a professional, you'll ultimately feel more confident in your ability to cope with the fear and get past it. 

How does exposure therapy work?

Typically, when someone experiences an anxiety-provoking fear, they’ll go out of their way to avoid any reminders of it. Although avoidance provides temporary, short-term relief, this pattern only strengthens the fear itself. 

 Exposure therapy aims to reduce those irrational fears that someone experiences once they've assigned them to an object or situation by gradually exposing them to various aspects of it. 

Together, the therapist and client work to define the best treatment method based on their experiences and present circumstances. While it's meant to help regain a sense of control, exposure therapy actively confronts a person's fears and anxieties, so it must be done incredibly carefully by a trained therapist. 

What techniques are utilized?

Exposure therapy can take several different forms to promote the reduction of distressing emotional responses. Generally, these methods can include:

  • In vivo exposure: During in vivo exposure, a person will confront a phobia or fearful situation in real-time. For example, if someone has a phobia of enclosed spaces, they may gradually work their way up to riding in a crowded elevator.
  • Imaginal exposure: If a real-world exposure isn't feasible, a therapist will guide someone in confronting it mentally by picturing it in their mind. Imaginal exposure is commonly used for complicated or dangerous scenarios-such as combat-related PTSD.  Visualizing the origin of fear or anxiety with a therapist can reassure someone that they're safe and ultimately reduce feelings of distress.
  • Virtual reality exposure: Virtual reality, like imaginal exposure, is a tool that can be used to help people confront fears and worst-case scenarios. For example, someone with a crippling fear of flying can take a flight virtually in their therapist's office, using equipment to replicate the same sounds, sights, and smells they would experience if they were actually on a plane. 
  • Interoceptive exposure: The technique of interoceptive exposure involves creating bodily sensations closely resemble those associated with panic and anxiety. Despite being harmless, these sensations would cause a lot of distress to someone with anxiety or panic disorder. 


Who can benefit from exposure therapy?

Exposure therapy can help treat a variety of anxiety and fear-based disorders, including:

  • Phobias
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

How can it help?

Based on a significant amount of research, exposure therapy has proven to be a safe technique that promotes the following:

  • Habituation: A natural process that happens over time; habituation is when a person finds themselves responding less to feared situations or stimuli. 
  • Extinction: Exposure can help reduce or weaken the association between the feared object or situation.
  • Self-efficacy: Exposure therapy can help show someone that they can confront their fears and manage discomfort. 
  • Emotional processing: Throughout treatment, a person can adopt more helpful, realistic beliefs about their fears, ultimately becoming more accepting and comfortable with them.


Taking the next step

Although there are different ways to deal with trauma and many different exposure therapy types, the key is to find a mental health professional who can execute the most suitable treatment for your situation. When done efficiently, the outcomes can be life-changing.