Types And Benefits Of Exposure Therapy
Updated December 10, 2018
Reviewer Lindi Herrin, LPC
Exposure therapy provides a valuable therapeutic intervention for many people who suffer from a variety of mental health conditions. What is exposure therapy, you might ask? Are there different types of it, and what can it possibly do to make your life better? If you're considering going into therapy, it makes sense to find out more.
What Is Exposure Therapy?
A complete exposure therapy definition includes the uses, methods, and goals of this treatment. Exposure therapy is a type of therapy used to help people overcome mental health conditions that arise from fear. It is done in specific ways, each of which is designed to give you more experience with the fearful stimuli in a situation that is neutral or positive.
As you experience the same sounds and sights that you've associated with danger, you become less sensitive to those sights and sounds, 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 in your environment that you associate with life-threatening situations.
Conditions Treated with Exposure Therapy
The conditions treated with exposure therapy include a wide variety of fear-based mental conditions. Exposure therapy has been scientifically proven to be helpful in each of the following conditions:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Simple phobias
- Social phobia
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
How Is Exposure Therapy Presented?
In exposure therapy, those stimuli you associate with danger are presented to you in a way that helps you become less sensitized to them and break 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." These stimuli are presented in one of three ways: graded exposure, systematic desensitization, or flooding.
Flooding is a way of presenting the stimuli that causes you fear, beginning with those that cause you the most anxiety. As you continue this intervention, the most anxiety-provoking stimuli become lesser.
In graded exposure, the fear-inducing stimuli are presented to you starting with the ones you are least afraid of facing. 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, your exposure is increased until you're staying on the plane from takeoff to landing.
Systematic desensitization combines either flooding or graded exposure therapy techniques with relaxation techniques. Because you are more relaxed before and during the exposure, your fearful associations with the sights and sounds become more associated with a state of relaxation.
Types of Exposure Therapy
There are several variations of exposure therapy, each of them using their own unique methods to help people overcome mental health challenges.
In Vivo Exposure Therapy
In vivo exposure therapy is a type of therapy that takes place in the actual location where you typically feel distress. The example of exposure therapy for fear of flying mentioned earlier in this article is an example of in vivo therapy, because it happens inside an airplane, where that fear is felt most.
Imagined Exposure Therapy
In imagined exposure therapy, you are not exposed to stimuli you perceive as signs of danger. Instead, you imagine that situation 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. One example is used for people with panic disorder. They 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. This can shorten or decrease the severity of panic attacks in the future.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) presents the stimuli you associate with life-threatening situations through computer-generated sights and sounds. The exposure may be done via a desktop computer display, a virtual reality headset, or what is called a CAVE environment that consists of a cube-like compartment where projectors and audio equipment provide the stimuli. Virtual reality therapy has shown great promise in treating PTSD as well as anxiety disorders.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD
Prolonged exposure therapy has been used successfully for people who suffer from PTSD due to combat experiences and other truly life-threatening situations. Because the traumatic event caused you great fear, avoidance of situations that are reminders of that event cause distress.In prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, you confront these fears a little at a time until you can enjoy a full and happy life without the troublesome symptoms of PTSD.
Is Light Exposure Therapy a Type of Exposure Therapy?
If you go by the words used, you might think that light exposure therapy is a type of exposure therapy. However, it is different from what psychologists refer to when they use the term "exposure therapy." Light exposure therapy was developed to relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that happens or becomes more severe at times when there is less sunlight in the environment.
So, which of the following is a type of exposure therapy: light exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, imagined exposure therapy, interoceptive exposure therapy, virtual reality exposure therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, or exposure therapy for PTSD? All of these except light exposure therapy use the methods and goals of the therapeutic intervention known simply as exposure therapy.
Benefits of Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a powerful tool to help with anxiety and fear-based mental conditions. For individuals who need the kind of help it offers, 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 danger is near. For example, if you feel anxious when you're home alone, you might notice every small snap of a twig or creak of a floorboard, fearing that someone is coming to do you harm.
You may reason that the twig snapping only means there's a stray animal in your yard or that the floorboard is creaking because your house is old and settling. Yet, your fear doesn't immediately go away. However, when you're exposed to these stimuli in exposure therapy, you become used to, or habituated to, their presence in the environment. Thus, you become less sensitive to every little sound.
Weakening Fear-Provoking Associations
Another way exposure therapy helps relieve fear is that it breaks previous associations between stimuli and negative outcomes. In the previous example, you associate those innocent sounds with someone coming to hurt you. Through exposure therapy, your mind and body can 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 for you may be learning to accept fear when it's natural and understanding how to live with the 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. Anxiety can cause you to feel helpless and powerless. During exposure therapy, you can learn that you do have control over your thinking as well as your physical reactions to your environment.
After successfully completing exposure therapy, you feel far less anxious. This happens when you are faced with the stimuli you have become less sensitive to through the course of treatment. Yet, even more might change. You may find that you become less anxious overall, not only in that situation, but in general.
Improving Daily Functioning
How many important tasks do you avoid because of anxiety? How many times to you stay away from situations that cause you fear? When you avoid doing what you need to do to survive and thrive in life, you arenot functioning at your potential.
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. If you're anxious in social situation, you might isolate yourself, and in doing so, miss out on the socialization you need to be mentally healthy. However, after exposure therapy, these self-care and survival tasks become easier and more manageable.
Increasing 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 the anxiety during exposure therapy, you can become more relaxed. This allows you to think more clearly, be more engaged in the conversation, and ultimately, improve social skills.
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 posttraumatic stress disorder. As your symptoms decrease, you begin to feel more in tune with the people you interact with and the reality of your situation. This can help you become more relaxed to enjoy life more.
Can Exposure Therapy Help Me?
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.com. Online therapy is a convenient, hassle-free way to get help on your own terms, wherever you are. You only need an internet connection and a device that allows you to communicate with your counselor via text, talk, or video chat. The cost is very affordable, and the counselors are available to help you right away.
Together with a therapist, you can assess your concerns and determine your goals.