Key Takeaways

  • One of the most effective treatments for anxiety, phobias, and conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is exposure therapy.
  • In exposure therapy, a mental health professional will gradually expose you to triggers to help interrupt cycles of fear and avoidance that can negatively impact your life. The exposure is slow and controlled, allowing you to build tolerance over time. 
  • Exposure therapy is client-directed, which means you get to set the pace. It’s normal to feel some discomfort during exposure therapy, but your therapist won’t put you in situations where you feel extreme distress.
Everyone has a reason to be afraid sometimes. You might avoid certain people, places, or things that make you feel anxious. This is not necessarily a cause for concern. However, some people have fears that are so strong that they impact their ability to live their daily lives. This is often the result of a traumatic experience, phobia, or other mental health concerns. Fortunately, help is available, and one of the most effective treatments for addressing extreme fears and anxieties is something called exposure therapy.  As the name suggests, exposure therapy involves a slow, gradual “exposure” to triggers under the supervision of a mental health professional. Unlike some other therapies, exposure therapy focuses on reducing symptoms instead of focusing on why they exist. This evidence-based approach has helped many people reduce their fear response and gain control of their anxiety.

What conditions can exposure therapy help treat?

Research shows that exposure therapy can be effective in treating a wide range of mental health conditions, including:

The therapeutic process in exposure therapy

If you’ve never been to exposure therapy, you might be wondering what you can expect from a session. Rest assured, your therapist will walk you through each step of the process before you begin. During this time, feel free to ask any questions you have and express any concerns. As with other forms of therapy, exposure therapy is client directed, so you get to set the pace. You will probably feel some discomfort as you slowly engage with triggers, but you should never feel extreme distress during a session. If you do, be sure to tell your therapist. Learning about the exposure therapy process can help you make the most of the experience. It’s important to remember that the exposure will be slow and gradual. Again, you get to set the pace based on what feels right for you. You will engage with your triggers in a safe, controlled environment under the supervision of your therapist or another mental health professional.  Remember that you can always let your therapist know if something doesn’t feel right. Their job is to help you find a balance between challenging yourself to face your fears and not taking on too much too fast.  Before beginning exposure therapy, your therapist may help you establish an “exposure hierarchy.” This is a list of things you’re afraid of starting from the least upsetting to the most upsetting. This list will help you create a starting point. In other words, you will begin by facing a mild fear to build positive momentum toward facing something more challenging.  Your therapist will also help you practice some skills for managing and reducing anxiety responses. That way, you’ll have coping tools to turn to when you feel discomfort. You can then use those skills both during your sessions and in your daily life. In time, this can help you break the cycle of fear and avoidance that may be impacting your ability to live your life.

Is exposure therapy effective?

There is a lot of clinical evidence showing that exposure therapy can help treat many conditions. Researchers have found that:

Types of exposure therapy

Like other therapeutic approaches, exposure therapy comes in many forms, and your therapist will base their approach on your unique treatment needs. Some different types of exposure therapy include:
  • Systematic desensitization: With this approach, your therapist will combine exposure exercises with relaxation exercises to help you feel more relaxed, safe, and ready to engage with a trigger.
  • Flooding: This approach is related to the pace of exposure therapy. It involves using the exposure hierarchy (a series of progressively more challenging triggers) to decide when you’re ready to advance to a more difficult exposure task. 
  • Virtual reality exposure: Sometimes, exposure to an actual trigger isn’t possible for practical reasons. For example, if you are afraid of flying, you can’t recreate that experience in your therapist’s office. So your therapist may use special technology to simulate a virtual flight. This will allow you to engage with some of the sights, sounds, and smells of an airplane.
  • Prolonged exposure: Mental health professionals often use this form of exposure therapy to treat PTSD. It involves gradually approaching traumatic memories. Confronting fears in a systematic way over time can help reduce your fear response.

Find the right exposure therapist with Rula

If you’re living with fears and anxieties that you can’t seem to overcome on your own, know that you’re not alone and help is available. There are many effective treatments for these concerns, including exposure therapy. Rula can help you find the right therapist for your unique needs in just a few clicks.  What’s more, since we’re a virtual platform, we can connect you with an exposure therapist who takes your insurance. You can even meet with them from the comfort of your home. And our network of over 8,000 therapists means you can be seen this week.

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