Exposure therapy is a form of psychotherapy designed to help people overcome their fears. The research literature indicates that exposure therapy should be considered a first treatment for many anxiety disorders. When someone is afraid of something they’ll naturally try to avoid whatever it is, certain situations, activities or things. This avoidant behavior will help them temporarily, but it’s not a long-term solution because their fears just become worse. Exposure therapy is designed to reduce and eliminate fear and anxiety.
With exposure therapy a safe environment is set up so that the individual can be safely and gradually “exposed” to whatever it is they’re afraid of. Exposure therapy was developed to help people break the pattern of fear and avoidant behavior. As they gradually become exposed to the feared object, activity or situation, in an environment they know is safe, their fear is reduced and the impulse to flee decreases.
Exposure therapy has proven to be successful in the treatment of:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
- Panic Disorders
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
It’s important to pace exposure therapy so that the patient is able to tolerate the exposure and receives the maximum benefit. Some of the different ways to pace exposure therapy are:
- Graded Exposure – The patient’s feared objects, activities or situations are ranked from least fearful to most fearful, creating a fear hierarchy. Exposure therapy starts with the least fearful circumstance and gradually progresses to up the hierarch to more difficult circumstances. Graded exposure therapy allows the patient to ease into the process of confronting their fears as they learn to cope with them.
- Systematic Desensitization – This aspect of exposure therapy involves combining the fear hierarchy mentioned with training in systematic relaxation exercises. This allows the patient to manage their fears and increase their ability to relax, so they work through the exposure therapy process as their fear becomes manageable.
- Flooding – This technique is only used in rare circumstances and involves exposing the patient to their most difficult fears first. This method of exposure therapy is usually reserved for those situations in which the feared objects, events or activities cannot be reproduced in the office.
There are various types of Exposure therapy that are combined with graded exposure, systematic desensitization and relaxation exercises. Each therapist and patient determines which combination of exposure therapy methods are appropriate to resolve the fear.
- Imaginal Exposure Therapy – This technique has the patient imagining the object, situation or activity they are afraid of. An example of this would be someone with PTSD being asked to remember or to describe their traumatic experience and because they know they are safely in their therapist’s office, their feelings of being afraid will be reduced.
- Interoceptive Exposure Therapy – This involves having the patient bring about the physical sensations that are associated with fear. An example would be a patient suffering from Panic Disorder may be told to run in place, causing a rapid heart –beat, which simulates how they feel when afraid. They learn that this feeling is not dangerous in and of itself.
- In Vivo Exposure Therapy – This involves the patient being directed to face the object, situation or activity they are afraid of in REAL LIFE. An example of this would be someone who is afraid of snakes being told to pick up and handle a snake themselves. Or someone who has social anxiety being told to give a speech to an audience. They face their fears head-on and then realize that nothing terrible happens as a result.
- Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy – With modern technology there are ways to use virtual reality to expose the patient to the object, situation or activity they fear. This is commonly used with people who are afraid to fly. They can take a virtual flight right in the office of their psychotherapist. There is equipment that duplicates the appearance of the interior of an airplane, even the sounds and smells one would encounter on a real flight.
Exposure therapy seems to be helpful in a number of ways:
- Habituation – Through exposure therapy patients discover that their reactions and fear of certain objects, situations or activities subside.
- Extinction – This is when the learned associations between the objects, activities or situations they are afraid of, because of perceived negative outcomes, become weaker and weaker. Using exposure therapy the fears associated with specific objects, situations or behavior decline to the point of minimal and eventually no impact.
- Self-efficacy – Through the use of exposure therapy to the feared objects, situations or activities proves to the patient that they are capable of facing their fears and handling the feelings of anxiety that arise without falling apart.
- Emotional Processing – While the client is experiencing the exposure therapy they are learning to form new, realistic beliefs about the objects, situations or activities that they fear. They can achieve a level of comfort with the experience without being afraid.
Because our treatment for anxiety and depression relies on evidence based practices, our Intensive Outpatient Program shares many common methods with other successful treatment methods. The foundation of our treatment program for relies on the principles of the stages of change, cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused treatment, skills training and identifying repetitive dysfunctional behavioral relationship patterns to promote recovery from anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. In fact, our Intensive Outpatient Program in Memphis, TN that has been proven to be effective in the treatment of these disorders in six peer reviewed treatment outcome studies. Our treatment center provides services to those who need more treatment than one hour a week, but less than 24 hour care, by providing three hours of treatment per day, three to five days per week, in an intensive outpatient setting. If you or a loved one is showing signs of anxiety or depression, they should be assessed by a trained mental health professional who can help design a treatment plan for depression that can result in recovery. Treatment for depression and anxiety can be highly successful. Call us at 901-682-6136 to schedule an appointment.