• What is Exposure Therapy?

    What is Exposure Therapy?

    Exposure therapy is a common treatment used by therapists to work with patients who experience strong fear, anxiety and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some may have evolved into patterns of behavior that threaten their lifestyle or are causing patients problems in relationships, work and other areas of their lives.

    Who Needs Exposure Therapy?
    Persons who have trouble navigating the world around them due to fear or anxiety about performing life skills that would assist them in becoming comfortable and productive can benefit from Exposure Therapy. These can be anything from leaving the house to go out into the world each day, to driving a car.

    These fears can become crippling for those become severely afraid that they can’t function in that area of their lives. Most of these fears are also recognized to progressively worsen over time. Exposure therapy exposes the patient to the thing they feel fear until they can comfortably reframe their life around loss of that fear.

    What Happens During Treatment?

    During exposure therapy, patients are walked through the process of immersing themselves in the things they fear. They are “exposed” to the situations they are most afraid of, but in a safe and non-threatening way. Most therapists will work with cognitive tools to help patients by using relaxation and calming techniques before they begin treatment.

    For example, if a patient is afraid of leaving their home to go out into the marketplace, a fear referred to as agoraphobia. Therapy would begin with this person being taught how to breathe and become calm. They are then required to look at the situation that frightens them, which is leaving their home. They may be assisted by someone they trust, such as a family member or friend. With this person, they will begin to make small, progressive steps toward their stated goal, which could perhaps be leaving their home and going to the post office or shopping at the grocery store.

    Progress may be made by initially walking out of their front door with their safe person, each time going a little further than the time before. This is called “systematic desensitization,” one form of exposure therapy that is beneficial to gain progress with each treatment.

    This person may walk out of their home for the first session, just going to the edge of their property, if that is the limit of their ability. The next session will take them to the same place, while pressing them to go past the original point to a new point, perhaps out of their yard and into the neighborhood. Depending on the level of response they exhibit, the therapist may then ask them to go to the end of their block with the safe person.

    Using their new skills to calm themselves, they progress to the point of leaving home without the safe person and, eventually, become comfortable in achieving their goal of going out to public places alone. This process will take longer for some than for others. Each individual will see different results.

    What is the Expected Outcome?

    With time, the patient is able to go freely into situations they avoided for much of their life with a new degree of comfort. This therapy gives patients tools to use when fears resurface or in new situations they feel fear around.

    Patients have been given skills to confront thoughts of fear and to question them. Remembering times when they were safe in doing things they once feared, they see how to make this new situation safe as well.

    Are There Other Types of Exposure Therapy?

    Other techniques can range from the cognitive-behavioral technique mentioned above, as well as giving patients mental tools to use for a more radical type of treatment called “flooding,” which is a sudden and intense exposure to the feared situation.

    There are a wide range of skills and techniques available to treat each patient. When dealing with phobias, it is important to consult a therapist in order to find and administer a treatment that will best suit the patient.

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