What is exposure therapy?
Exposure therapy is used to help people confront and overcome their fears through desensitization. Most of us will avoid (sometimes at all costs) something we’re afraid of. Fearful flyers will stay home or only take driving holidays. People afraid of moths will stay in the house at night. People with social anxiety will avoid parties, phone calls, and interactions with others. By being exposed to that which you fear, you get desensitized, and the fear will lose its power over you, allowing you to eventually overcome the fear or phobia.
How does exposure therapy work?
There are several ways to be exposed to your fear:
In vivo (involves exposure to the actual thing in which you fear)
Your therapist will slowly expose you to the object of your fear in a safe and slow-paced manner, with the intent of increasing your exposure and comfort to the exposure over time. For example, if you have a fear of spiders (arachnophobia) you may begin by looking at photos of spiders, then once you’ve become comfortable with that, you may have some sessions with a live spider in the room in a cage or jar. Next you may progress to having the spider closer to you, then you may have the spider let out in an enclosed area and you may attempt to touch it. It’s even possible that your final session may involve you holding a tarantula!
Imaginal (involves exposure thorough your imagination or virtual reality)
Your therapist will ask you to describe in high detail, the situation in which you are afraid. The sights, sounds and smells of what you experience and how you are feeling.
Interoceptive (involves exposure to a particular sensation in real life)
Your therapist may ask you to re-enact a sensation that frightens you. For example, you may fear that you will pass out when having a panic attack, so you will be instructed to purposely hyperventilate by breathing very quickly for one minute to learn that you won’t actually pass out and to desensitize yourself to the threat of the sensation of rapid breathing.
Exposure therapy works in several ways:
- Decreasing your fear to the object, situation, or sensation
- Increasing your confidence in how you react to your fear
- Learning new ways to deal with your fear
When is exposure therapy used?
Exposure therapy is used to treat:
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
This type of therapy may be used to treat other conditions and concerns in addition to those listed above. It may also be used in conjunction with other treatment methods. Your therapist will work with you to determine the best treatment method for your individual circumstances.
You should be aware that there is no treatment method that is successful for every person. What works for you, may not work for someone else.
What to expect from therapy
Put simply, you will get out of therapy what you put into it. It’s not a magic solution that will solve all your problems. It may involve you doing some real work and being completely honest with yourself and your therapist. Sometimes facing our truth is the hardest thing of all – but from that discomfort can come healing and growth.