Types And Benefits Of Exposure Therapy
By Ashley Brown
Updated November 13, 2019
Reviewer Lindi Herrin, LPC
Exposure therapy provides a valuable therapeutic intervention for many people who suffer from a variety of mental health conditions. Perhaps you're wondering what exposure therapy is. Are there different types of exposure therapy, and what can it possibly do to make your life better? This article will answer these questions and more. It will also show you how to get the help you need if you feel like you would benefit from this type of therapy.
What Is Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is designed to help people overcome mental health conditions that arise from fear. There are specific ways to conduct exposure therapy, so that over time you gain more experience with the fearful stimuli in situations that are neutral or positive.
As you experience the same sounds and sights that you've previously associated with danger, you become less sensitive to them, and your fear eases. The goal of exposure therapy is to help you become less fearfully aroused when you hear, see, or otherwise sense stimuli that you associate with life-threatening situations. Exposure therapy is considered the be the top treatment for a number of disorders, and it can change a sufferer's life.
Conditions Treated with Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy treats a wide variety of fear-based mental conditions. It has been scientifically proven to be helpful for each of the following conditions:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Simple phobias
- Social phobia
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
In exposure therapy, you're presented with the stimuli that you associate with danger in tiny, incremental steps. It eventually helps you become less sensitive to them, breaking the negative associations. Each of the feared stimuli is ranked according to the intensity of anxiety you feel when you experience it. This is called the fear hierarchy. Stimuli on the fear hierarchy are presented in one of three ways: graded exposure, systematic desensitization, or flooding.
Flooding. Flooding is a way of presenting the stimuli that cause you fear, beginning with those that cause you the most anxiety at the top of the fear hierarchy. As you continue this intervention, the most anxiety-provoking stimuli begin to cause less anxiety.
Graded Exposure. In graded exposure, the fear-inducing stimuli are presented to you, starting with the ones that cause you the least fear. For example, if you feel extreme anxiety when you have to fly on a plane, your therapist might begin by taking you to sit in an empty plane on the ground. Next, they might have you sit in a plane full of people. Eventually, they'll increase your exposure until you're able to take a flight without significant fear.
Systematic Desensitization. Systematic desensitization combines either flooding or graded exposure therapy techniques with relaxation techniques. Because you are more relaxed before and during the exposure, the sights and sounds that you once associated with fear become more associated with a state of relaxation.
Types of Exposure Therapy
There are several variations of exposure therapy, each of which uses its own unique methods to help people overcome mental health challenges.
- In Vivo Exposure Therapy: This type of therapy takes place in the actual location where you typically feel distress. The example about a fear of flying mentioned earlier in this article is an example of in vivo therapy because it happens inside an airplane that was provoking fear in the patient.
- Imagined Exposure Therapy: In imagined exposure therapy, you're not exposed to stimuli you perceive as dangerous. Instead, you imagine being exposed to it in great detail. This helps you confront the fear and overcome it. Imagined exposure therapy is especially helpful for unusual fears or fears based on specific incidents.
- Interoceptive Exposure Therapy: Interoceptive exposure therapy helps you have the physical experience of the feared stimuli without actually being exposed to it. In the case of panic disorder, for example, patients are asked to exercise vigorously to induce the physical sensations of a racing heart and difficulty breathing. The more they are exposed to this set of sensations, the less anxious they become when they feel similar sensations during a panic attack.
- Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET): Virtual reality exposure therapy presents the stimuli you associate with life-threatening situations through computer-generated sights and sounds. The exposure may occur via a desktop computer display, a virtual reality headset, or what is called a "CAVE environment"-a cube-like compartment where projectors and audio equipment provide the stimuli.
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD: Prolonged exposure therapy has successfully helped people who suffer from PTSD due to combat experiences and other truly life-threatening situations. Because the traumatic event caused great fear, avoidance of situations that are reminders of that event may cause distress, so this type of therapy works to reduce that avoidance.
Benefits of Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a powerful tool to help with anxiety and fear-based mental conditions. For individuals struggling with these issues, it has many important benefits.
- Becoming Less Sensitive: The sights and sounds in your environment can cause you deep distress if they make you think that danger is near. However, when you're exposed to these stimuli in exposure therapy, you become used to their presence in your environment.
- Weakening Fear-Provoking Associations: Another way exposure therapy helps relieve fear is that it breaks previous associations between stimuli and negative outcomes. Through exposure therapy, your mind and body begin to react to those sounds for what they usually are-normal, everyday noises.
- Learning to Coexist with Fear When Needed: Even if exposure therapy is successful, there will always be situations where it's natural to feel anxious. A part of exposure therapy may include learning to accept fear when it's natural and understanding how to live with fear without becoming paralyzed or panic-stricken.
- Understanding Your Power: Anxiety happens most often when you feel you have no power to protect yourself or overcome challenges. During exposure therapy, you can learn that you do have control over your thinking, not to mention your physical reactions to your environment.
- Reducing Anxiety: After successfully completing exposure therapy, you feel far less anxious. This happens when you're faced with the stimuli you have become less sensitive to through the course of treatment.
- Improving Daily Functioning: If you're prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior, you may not be able to get to work on time because you're overwhelmed by the fear you associate with not going through a set of ritualistic behaviors. However, after exposure therapy, these self-care and survival tasks become easier and more manageable.
- Increased Social Skills: Many people have anxiety in social situations because they feel they are not good at relaxing around other people or contributing to conversations in interesting ways. By learning to manage this anxiety during exposure therapy, you can become more relaxed.
- Decreasing Symptoms of Mental Disorders: Exposure therapy can also help you decrease the symptoms of mental disorders like panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD. As your symptoms decrease, you'll begin to feel more in tune with the people around you and the reality of your situation.
Can Exposure Therapy Help Me?
If you're interested in finding out more about exposure therapy, it probably isn't safe to try to it at home. However, you can prepare yourself, so you're more informed on how you're feeling and what type of exposure therapy may be best for you. One way to do this is to reduce your stress and learn special relaxation techniques, both of which can alleviate anxiety. Some people choose to try alternative options like acupuncture as well. It may be a helpful way to diminish the effects of PTSD or insomnia.
It's very important to do your research and make sure you're being safe with your body and your mind. If you decide to try something new, take it slow. You need to be able to wrap your mind around what's happening, so you will be able to process your feelings in a healthy way.
BetterHelp Can Support You
If you're still wondering whether exposure therapy is the right option for you, you can get the answers you need by talking with a counselor on BetterHelp. Online therapy is a convenient, hassle-free way to get help on your own terms, wherever you are or wherever you feel comfortable. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.
"Dr. Broz is a brilliant, kind-hearted woman. She listens to everything I have to say and responds promptly. We're in contact constantly with each other. Her worksheets are very helpful and I'm starting to work my way towards being able to better handle my anxiety and panic attacks. She is very relatable and often chimes in with stories of her own that relate to what I am experiencing as well. I would definitely recommend Dr. Broz to anyone in need of help or someone to talk to."
"Kara has provided a safe space for me to express my fears and anxiety. She has provided me tools to help manage my anxiety and continues to support me."
Exposure therapy is a process that can help lessen the symptoms of many different types of conditions. When used properly, it can take fear and stress out of situations that may have troubled you in the past. If you're struggling with extreme fears that affect your daily life, contact BetterHelp now, so you can start to feel like yourself again. With the right tools, it's possible to have a fulfilling life that's free from fear. Take the first step today.