Exposure therapy is a kind of behavioral therapy that is typically used to help people living with phobias and anxiety disorders. It involves a person facing what they fear, either imagined or in real life, but under the guidance of a trained therapist in a safe environment. It can be used with people of all ages, and has been found to be effective.
Learning more about exposure therapy can help you make an informed decision about treatment and prepare you for what to expect.
In exposure therapy, a person is exposed to a situation, event, or object that triggers anxiety, fear, or panic for them. Over a period of time, controlled exposure to a trigger by a trusted person in a safe space can lessen the anxiety or panic.
There are different kinds of exposure therapies. They can include:
- In vivo exposure. This therapy involves directly facing the feared situation or activity in real life.
- Imaginal exposure. It involves vividly imagining the trigger situation in detail.
- Virtual reality exposure. This therapy can be used when in vivo exposure isn’t realistic, like if someone has a fear of flying.
- Interoceptive exposure. This therapy involves purposefully triggering a physical sensation that is feared, but harmless.
- Prolonged exposure (PE). This includes a combination of in vivo and imaginal exposure. For example, someone might repeatedly revisit a traumatic event by visualizing it, and talking about it with a therapist simultaneously, and then discussing it to gain a new perspective about the event.
- Exposure and response prevention (EX/RP, or ERP). Typically used for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), this involves doing exposure homework, such as touching something considered “dirty,” and then refraining from performing the compulsive behavior that is triggered from the exposure.
Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can include imaginal exposure and in vivo, but in vivo exposure is not as common. The
There is not a lot of research with exposure therapy and GAD, and more is needed to further explore its effectiveness.
In vivo exposure is typically used for people with social anxiety. This can include things like going to a social situation and not avoiding certain activities. The same
Virtual reality exposure therapy has been used to help people with a driving phobia. A small 2018 study found that it was effective in reducing driving anxiety, but more research still needs to be done with this specific phobia. Other therapies may need to be used alongside exposure therapy.
Virtual reality exposure therapy has been found to be effective and therapeutic to treat anxiety about public speaking for both adults and teens. One small 2020 study found that there was a significant decrease in self-rated anxiety about public speaking after a 3-hour session. These results were maintained 3 months later.
Separation anxiety disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders in children. Exposure therapy is considered the top treatment for it. This involves exposing the child to feared situations and, at the same time, encouraging adaptive behavior and thinking. Over time, the anxiety lessens.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) uses imaginal and in vivo exposure and is often used to help treat OCD. In vivo exposures are done in the therapy session as well as assigned for homework, and the response prevention (not engaging in compulsive behaviors) is part of that. An individual lets the anxiety decrease on its own instead of performing the behaviors that would get rid of the anxiety. When in vivo exposure is too hard or impractical, imaginal exposure is used.
Interoceptive exposure therapy is often used to treat panic disorder. According to a
Exposure therapy is effective for the treatment of anxiety disorders. According to EBBP.org, about 60 to 90 percent of people have either no symptoms or mild symptoms of their original disorder after completing their exposure therapy. Combining the exposure therapy with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), relaxation techniques, and other treatments may enhance the effectiveness as well.
As with other mental health conditions, exposure therapy may be used in conjunction with other treatments. This can depend on the severity of your anxiety disorder and your symptoms. Your therapist may suggest using exposure therapy with things like cognitive therapy or relaxation techniques.
Medication may also be helpful for some people. Talk with your therapist or doctor about what treatments may be beneficial for you along with exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is done by psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists with the proper training. Especially with certain kinds of exposure therapy, like prolonged exposure, it is important to work with a therapist with training in how to safely and properly use exposure therapy so that you are not caused undue distress or psychological harm.
To find a therapist who is qualified to offer exposure therapy, you can find a cognitive behavioral therapist who is part of reputable organizations like the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapists.
Ask them questions about their training and what techniques they use.
Exposure therapy is a safe and effective treatment for a variety of anxiety disorders. It can be used alone or in combination with other treatments. If you think it might help you, talk with your doctor about finding a therapist who is experienced in the technique.