Is Short-Term Exposure Therapy Right for You?

Anxiety disorders affect about 25% of the population in the United States. Anxiety sufferers benefit greatly from exposure-based therapy. Persons with anxiety disorders should consider exposure to be a first-line, evidence-based therapy.

Key takeaways:
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    Therapists use exposure therapy to assist patients in overcoming their fears.
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    Research has shown that exposure therapy helps treat PTSD and phobias, among other anxiety disorders.
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    It is also a great way to boost confidence, especially if fear keeps you from living a normal life.
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    Exposure therapy is most effective when administered by a trained professional.

Exposure therapy involves repeatedly exposing the patient to their feared situation in a controlled environment under the guidance of a psychotherapist. Research shows that around 60–90% of people have either no symptoms or very mild symptoms of their disorder upon completion of a course of exposure therapy.

Defining exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy that assists individuals with eliminating their phobias or anxiety issues. In addition, it can help a person feel less anxious or fearful, whether these emotions are the result of a medical condition or a recent traumatic incident.

Exposure therapy exposes a person to a scenario or stimulus that causes them to experience anxiety or panic. Over time, regulated exposure to these anxieties in a secure environment can diminish anxiety and stress.

A therapist may use different strategies in exposure treatment based on the type of phobia or problem a patient is experiencing. For example, the therapist might set up a real-life situation for the person to go through or use talk therapy to get the person to imagine situations or remember traumatic events.

What conditions can exposure therapy treat?

Exposure therapy is effective in a range of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Phobias.
  • Panic disorder.
  • Social anxiety disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Generalized anxiety disorder.

Types of exposure therapy

Delivery methods and treatment length for exposure therapy vary. Qualified psychotherapists are responsible for determining which exposure treatment is appropriate for the patient and how long the sessions should run. Some of the most common types are:

In vivo

This consists of directly exposing the patient to the dreaded object, scenario, or behavior. As an example of exposure therapy for phobias, the therapist instructs someone afraid of spiders to touch or get close to a spider.

Imaginal

The patient is requested to visualize the feared object, circumstance, or behavior. For example, a therapist may urge a patient with PTSD to recall and explain the traumatic event to overcome feelings of anxiety.

Virtual reality

Sometimes, it's not possible or practical to recreate real-world situations outside of the office. For example, when treating a patient with a fear of flying, virtual reality exposure therapy is a great alternative.

Interoceptive

This strategy presents a series of benign exposure exercises that target the patient's feared bodily and physiological systems. A patient with panic disorder who believes they’re having a heart attack, for instance, may be taught to run in place to elevate his heart rate and learn that there is no risk in doing so.

Different grades of exposure

Exposure therapy may also be administered differently, depending on the patient's needs. Approaches consist of:

Gradual exposure

The psychologist and patient develop a fear hierarchy of exposure together. The patient starts with gentle exposures before progressing to more challenging ones.

Flooding

The therapist first exposes the patient to the most difficult activities in the fear hierarchy.

Systematic desensitization

The therapist will use this method to help the person relax and get used to each step. The therapist may use relaxation exercises like meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation to treat patients.

Benefits of exposure therapy

Exposure therapy's main benefit is that it helps people overcome their fears. It can also make them more open to trying new activities in the future and cause them to feel less constricted in their daily lives. It is also a great way to boost confidence, especially if fear keeps them from living a normal life. Getting over one’s fears rewards the person with a great sense of freedom that can be very liberating.

Self-efficacy

This has to do with empowerment and confidence. Exposure therapy demonstrates to the patient that they can overcome their concerns. As a result, they reduce the worry or tension significantly that often accompanies fear. Additionally, it will offer the individual hope that they can control their anxiety and do not have to live their lives running from their fears.

Emotional processing

Exposure is a wonderful chance for a person to gain an overall insight and understanding of their anxieties and feelings. Ideally, individuals will eventually have a more rational view of their anxieties and be able to tolerate normal levels of anxiety.

Habituation

The concept of habituation states that repeated exposure makes a person's reaction to stimuli less intense. Thus, exposure therapy diminishes people's strong fear reactions to stimuli. Therefore, they get sufficiently conditioned to them so that they no longer experience fear or terror.

Improved social skills

Many people get nervous in social situations because they can't relax or come up with interesting things to talk about. However, with the help of deep relaxation exercises and learning how to deal with this anxiety in therapy, it becomes easier to interact with people in a more relaxed manner.

Extinction

This decreases the association between the fearful object or event and the physical reaction. After sufficient exposure, the association that caused the individual's fear or tension will no longer exist.

Things to consider

Exposure therapy is challenging work that requires people to experience and face emotions they have fought hard to avoid. As a result, if the treatment is not carried out appropriately, the benefits of exposure therapy may diminish over time. As a result, patients must fully engage in their therapy and follow the instructions of a well-trained therapist.

If you want to try exposure therapy, search for a qualified therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist trained in this kind of treatment.

Work with your therapist to plan out your treatment objectives, and make an effort to establish a solid, collaborative connection with them. It is essential that you have a strong therapeutic rapport because you need to feel comfortable and supported while facing your fears.

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