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What is Exposure Therapy?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Exposure therapy is a type of behavior therapy in which the patient confronts a feared situation, object, thought, or memory. Sometimes, this involves reliving a traumatic experience in a controlled, therapeutic environment. The goal of this therapy is to reduce the distress, physical or emotional, felt in certain situations. It may be used in dealing with anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress.

During exposure therapy treatment, a therapist helps the patient remember a disturbing thought, traumatic situation, or feared object. The therapist also helps the patient deal with the unpleasant emotions or physical symptoms that may arise from this exposure. Through confronting the situations and thoughts that cause stress, patients are often able to learn coping skills, eventually reducing or even eliminating symptoms.

Patients are usually encouraged to talk about their feelings during therapy and to learn ways to face fears and stressful emotions. They are also encouraged to learn new ways of viewing fears and distressing situations. Hypnosis is sometimes used as part of this type of therapy. Even virtual reality techniques are used at times.

Sometimes, relaxation techniques are taught as part of exposure therapy. These techniques may be very helpful in dealing with both physical and emotional distress. They are intended to help the patient maintain control, even when faced with the situation, object, or thought that causes fear or distress. Often, breathing exercises are taught in conjunction with the therapy.

Exposure therapy is sometimes compared to desensitization. Unlike desensitization, however, this practice produces anxiety in the patient on purpose. Desensitization, on the other hand, combines relaxation with gradual introduction to the anxiety-producing object, thought, or situation. Furthermore, exposure therapy involves exposing the patient to the most distressing thought or situation first, while systematic desensitization begins with that which causes the least fear.

Exposure therapy may include flooding or graduated techniques. When flooding techniques are used, the patient may be exposed to the frightening or distressing thought, situation, or object for as much as two hours at a time. Graduated techniques are considered gentler because the patient may face the distressing stimuli in shorter chunks of time and have more control over the duration of the exposure.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon349584 — On Sep 27, 2013

No one should be treated for these things when they have no real life support! Based on mere assumptions gleaned from very limited knowledge, this is extremely counter productive, and harmful to many. It isn't surprising that suicides are escalating.

Many cannot easily talk on the phone or with strange people online. No one has the right to play God with people's lives simply because they have a higher education.

By anon133790 — On Dec 12, 2010

I am a thirty-something female suffering a disorder, of which i cannot name, and it has been a part of my life as long as i remember. The sound of people chewing and swallowing, breathing loud and gum chewing, strikes fear in me.

I am constantly terrified to be in class, because someone might chew gum. I am scared of movies, because of the popcorn. I have to beg my boyfriend not to get popcorn (which he loves) and tries not to show it, but is confused and angry that i feel so strongly about it.

When i was ten, my mother was chewing an apple, totally normal, and the sound made me so irate i grabbed it from her and threw it out the window. I have lost friends over this, and am in a basically constant threat of anxiety, fear, and shame. I have tried treatment with benzos (Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan...) however, I am a recovering addict and cannot take these medications.

Any thoughts would be so welcome. Thank you.

By anon115416 — On Oct 02, 2010

Thanks for this. I had some trama in my life years ago and am trying to get a professional to try this. Thanks especially to Annon105827, as - if you interpreted it correctly - that would indeed be a very harmful for me to look up currently.

By anon105827 — On Aug 23, 2010

I sincerely recommend that anyone diagnosed with PTSD not review the process of Byron Katie without the full support and guidance of a licensed counselor. Her work contains suggestions that survivors of trauma consider the possibility that they caused and/or gained something from their traumatic experiences, which can be highly destructive to individuals in a state of crisis.

I personally was triggered by videos of Byron Katie I saw online (after reading these comments) that suggested that victims of torture "choose" to give in to the demands of their tormentors and that their tormentors have no culpability for their actions.

A quick review of online resources reveals that BK has no license or training as a therapeutic provider. While I found her process of self-inquiry generally helpful in questioning negative thoughts, I also found the material to have a shallow and potentially damaging effect for those who have survived trauma, particular child abuse and neglect.

By anon98524 — On Jul 23, 2010

the article on exposure therapy is very informative and easy to understand. well done.

By anon65877 — On Feb 16, 2010

I am doing EMDR and they are going to start me on Exposure Therapy. What can it hurt? I am a 36 year old mother of three and grandma to one and I cannot even walk up my stinking stairs without freaking out that something is going to get me.

If this can help me climb those stairs without all that fear, then it is worth trying. Doing nothing is the worst thing I can think of. Wish me luck!

By anon64889 — On Feb 10, 2010

@anon18733: Exposure therapy is not used for phobias. You need systematic desensitization for those. For a phobia, you would be flooding, which, can actually reinforce the fear response.

By Acor — On Mar 07, 2009

There is a technique called EFT, helps with everything from anxiety to compulsive eating. It is easy and you can do it yourself once you know the basics. I recommend to go online and get information on EFT, it really helps.

By anon18733 — On Sep 28, 2008

I think exposure therapy is ridiculous! I mean, I am an emetophobic... and I recently threw up. That did not help AT ALL, it only made it worse, and I seriously think I've lost like... twenty pounds, because I hardly eat anything or drink anything. :<

By anon11360 — On Apr 14, 2008

Hope this note finds the editors well! Just want to tell you I think this is a very special website!

Your site directed me to Byron Katie; which in turn helped me help my son, who suffers from severe anxiety and PTSD due to his experiences at public school. Two words, thank you, but it just isn't enough to express my gratitude! I will pick a charity and donate to it in your honor. Thanks again.

By suzieqheart — On Sep 08, 2007

Both of you would benefit from "The Work of Byron Katie". She's easy to find on the web and all you need to get started is there for free! There are trained people who will facilitate you for free on the "Hotline" of The Works website.

fenimore206: with The Work you examine one of your thoughts at a time. The process is so easy, not at all like talk therapy! I bet one of the video clips on the website will directly address one of the issues that has you stuck!

zafariqbal: read about Katie's life before she found The Work...she was a basket case! The Work will help you right away...no matter how many problems you have.

Peace to both of you!

By zafariqbal — On Jul 05, 2007

i have problem of panic and anxiety due to this there are problems everwhere in my life.

and due to this i cannot sit a place with calm

pls tell me how should i fight the problem in my life.

By fenimore206 — On Apr 29, 2007

What if you can't talk about it? No matter what, no matter how hard you try the words just won't come.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
Learn more
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