Exposure Therapy For PTSD Eases Anxiety

By: Sarah Fader

Updated May 12, 2020

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What Is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure Therapy is a form of treatment that helps people face their fears. It's been found to be useful for people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as well as people who have anxiety disorders, such as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Exposure therapy can ease the anxiety that somebody with PTSD experiences because of their trauma. PTSD is a condition that people experience after they've had a traumatic event happen in their life. Whether that be a natural disaster, sexual assault or coming back from combat or war. PTSD has been called many things in the past, but it finally settled on a name.

What Is PTSD?

PTSD has been called many things during the past, but it finally settled on a name. Many people believe that PTSD exclusively affects people who have fought in wars. It's not the case, and trauma isn't only related to combat, but many other experiences. People who have witnessed a natural disaster, seen a violent act, been through sexual assault or emotional abuse can all develop PTSD. It's a widespread condition and touches people of all races and genders. PTSD affects 3.5 percent of adults, and one in 11 people. Women are twice as likely to get it than men are. Anyone who has experienced significant trauma can develop the condition. If you believe that you have PTSD, it's essential to seek treatment in the form of therapy, and (if necessary) medication. First, let's look at the symptoms of PTSD and identify them.

Symptoms Of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD are:

  • Intrusive thoughts or disturbing thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Anger
  • Isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Rage
  • Panic attacks

These are a few of the symptoms of people with PTSD have. They might avoid situations that remind them of the trauma. They could react to loud noises, and be sensitive to people touching them. To be diagnosed with PTSD you need to be exposed to a traumatic event at a rapid rate. When a person experiences a shocking episode of trauma, it leaves a lasting effect on their memories, and their emotional well being. They can feel powerless to fight these changes to their mindset. However, there is a type of mental health treatment that can help them heal. Exposure therapy can help people with PTSD.

Exposure Therapy And PTSD

Exposure therapy is a behavioral treatment that helps people confront situations that are disturbing to them, and then they're able to overcome the fear associated with those events. It's essential to remember that avoiding situations that provoke anxiety can make your worries grow. It can give the phobia more power, making it harder to overcome. You might be tempted to avoid something that scares you, but it won't help you to do this. Avoidance of a situation that's anxiety-provoking makes the trauma have more power, and it doesn't help you get well. PTSD symptoms will make you feel powerless at times. That's where exposure therapy can help.

The Goal Of Exposure Therapy

The goal of exposure therapy is to help a person significantly reduce a person's fear of a situation or the traumatic event that hurt them. The goal is to decrease the intense anxiety associated with their trauma through different types of exposure. They can learn distress tolerance by being gradually or rapidly exposed to these things. With PTSD, trauma can leave a lasting impact on a person's quality of life. A person might find it challenging to go to certain places because they're reminded of the traumatic event that happened to them. Particular sounds or smells might trigger them. Exposure therapy is a way that you can confront your trauma, safely, and start to work on techniques to reduce anxiety and panic that come along with surviving a traumatic experience.

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Exposure Therapy Methods

There are different kinds of exposure therapy methods depending on what your problem is, and how much panic or anxiety you're experiencing. For a person who is having intermittent flashbacks and nightmares, they might be in a state where they're not able to handle direct exposure yet. They may need to try a different technique that has a gradual introduction to what they're afraid to confront. The various methods range from being intense, where the individual faces their fear head-on, to more prolonged or gradual exposure to their fear. There are four types of exposure therapies that are commonly used: invivo, imaginal, interoceptive and prolonged exposure.

Invivo Exposure

Invivo exposure means the confrontation of the person's fear. For example, a person who has had a traumatic experience on a train will directly deal with their fear by going to the train station and riding the train. A person with social anxiety might be afraid to do public speaking. Using the invivo exposure method, they could overcome their fear by writing and delivering a speech in front of a crowd. They will inevitably experience a high level of anxiety when they first stand up in front of a room full of people. However, when they realize that nothing terrible is going to happen, the anxiety will decrease. Invivo exposure therapy can be an intense experience, but it can also be instrumental in treating debilitating anxiety. When a person realizes that they can conquer their fear, it's empowering. Their quality of life is going to improve, and they learned that they're in control of their emotions.

Learn More About How Exposure Therapy Can Help With PTSD
Speak With A Board-Certified Therapist Today.

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Imaginal Exposure

Imaginal exposure is when a person imagines the thing they're fearful of in a therapy session. They might use visualization to work through their fears. They envision in their mind something they're afraid of and work through the trauma. For example, a person may have experienced a violent attack on a dirt road. They're scared to travel on country roads now. They could work with a therapist and imagine walking down the road. When they start to feel distressed, the therapist helps them work through those emotions. They might imagine that the person tries to attack them, and they can fight back. It's imperative to do this kind exposure therapy exercise with a trained professional because it can trigger anxiety or panic attacks. And you don't want to attempt it alone.

Interoceptive Exposure

Interoceptive exposure is targeted explicitly at the panic disorder, but it can also treat PTSD. It helps people confront symptoms in their body. Many people experience anxiety in their bodies. Whether you're feeling heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating or shaking, anxiety can create some uncomfortable feelings within your physical being. A person might believe they're having a heart attack, and find out that it, in reality, was a severe panic attack. One of the common symptoms of panic is feeling shortness of breath. When a person feels that way, it could make them start to hyperventilate. It creates more anxiety within them. They begin to panic because they're having physical symptoms due to their anxiety. That's where a therapist can help. In interoceptive exposure therapy, the therapist works with a client's physical anxiety symptoms to help calm them down. They give a client a straw to breathe through to practice slowing their breathing down. It helps the person manage their anxious symptoms, and it calms their body down. The client might try holding their breath and releasing it. Interoceptive exposure therapy teaches people to be aware of how their body reacts when it's panicked. When they learn to be mindful of their physical symptoms during anxiety, they can manage them better.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy is a combination of three types of treatment. It integrates invivo exposure, imaginal, and prolonged exposures. The person who's engaging in prolonged exposure therapy is going to get a well-rounded experience rather than focusing on one type of therapy. Prolonged exposure therapy is useful, and helps a person to get over their fears. People with PTSD usually do 8-15 sessions of this exposure for 90 minutes a session. Prolonged exposure therapy provides a unique integrated approach. The client doesn't have to face their deepest fear in each session but rather practices different techniques during each meeting with their therapist.

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Find A Therapist

If you're living with PTSD, and you're ready to face the fears that are holding you back from fully experiencing life, exposure therapy could help you. You don't have to continue to live life in a constant state of fight or flight. You have the right to experience happiness. Part of getting to a place of balance is allowing yourself the opportunity to work through your trauma, starting with what scares you. And you don't have to do that alone. There are mental health professionals who are trained in exposure therapy who can help you understand your fears, process the trauma you've experienced, and help support you as you heal. You can find a therapist for exposure therapy either in your local area or online like the ones here at BetterHelp. Exposure therapy is beneficial for PTSD, and some therapists are beginning to use virtual therapy to do imagined exposure. It's important to for people with PTSD to recognize that their symptoms can be trying, and there's going to be anxiety along the way, but that they're not alone and there's so much that they can benefit from exposure therapy.


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