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Is exposure therapy legit? 5 Things To Know

Exposure therapy is an often misunderstood form of therapy that relies on the consistent and controlled introduction of a patient's fear into sessions.

Administered by a licensed mental health professional, exposure therapy can be a legitimate form of therapy and has been shown to improve symptoms in many patients with varying conditions.

If you're considering exposure therapy, there are a few things you should know. Let's review five facts about exposure therapy to help illuminate where it is and isn't right for some patients.

Exposure therapy resources on this page:

#1: Exposure therapy can help with anxiety disorders, phobias, OCD, and PTSD symptoms.

#2: There are 3 types of exposure therapy.

#3: Exposure therapy can be harmful if not done by a professional.

#4: Exposure therapy is often co-administered with other types of therapy.

#5: Is all of this backed by science?

#1: Exposure therapy can help with anxiety disorders, phobias, OCD, and PTSD symptoms.

Approved uses of exposure therapy include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Phobias (irrational fears)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder

Note that while there is evidence to support the benefits of exposure therapy for patients with these conditions, it should only be administered by a medical professional like a therapist or psychologist.

Exposure Therapy for Anxiety

While anxiety is often caused by physiology and genetics, it can also be caused (or made worse) by external factors such as stress, traumatic memories, or personality characteristics.

When someone goes to exposure therapy for anxiety, they're addressing this second source of anxiety.

Those with anxiety often notice that their condition is worsened by specific situations, such as meeting new people or encountering a phobia (for example, snakes.)

Exposure therapy attempts to fix this by reducing the impact these situations have on people with anxiety disorders.

For example, someone with social anxiety who feels intense symptoms when meeting new people may be placed in a virtual reality environment where their only task is to introduce themselves to preprogrammed avatars.

Someone with a phobia of snakes might first watch videos on snakes and then, once they're ready, be given a snake to handle.

Exposure Therapy for OCD

Exposure therapy for OCD is also called exposure and response prevention.

People with OCD have obsessive thoughts, which often lead to compulsive actions. For example, someone with obsessive thoughts and worries about a home invasion may feel a compulsion to check their door lock over and over again before bed, despite understanding logically that the door has been locked since they got home from work.

For these patients, exposure therapy works by first introducing the obsessive trigger and then allowing a medical professional to walk the patient through a healthy response to the stimulus.

#2: There are 3 main types of exposure therapy.

When it comes to exposure therapy, there is definitely not a one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, every exposure therapy session must be carefully designed by a professional in order to reduce the chances of harm.

There are three primary forms of exposure therapy that, in general, can be utilized in one way or another for most patients.

In Vivo Exposure

This is real-life exposure. Whatever you fear or have anxiety about will be in the same room as you, so there are no barriers between you and it.

Often used towards the end of a course of exposure therapy sessions, this is obviously the most intensive form of exposure for most patients.

Note that your therapist will never force you into these situations, nor do they want to. This form of exposure must come after the appropriate groundwork has been laid with talk therapy and the "softer" forms of exposure, mentioned below.

Virtual Exposure

Virtual exposure in therapy refers to using digital tools to expose a patient to something they fear. This can be a softer way to introduce a feared stimulus to a patient, since at the very least there is no physical danger.

Make no mistake: it can still be jarring and difficult, but at any point, your therapist can simply turn off the screen and make it go away.

Imaginal Exposure

In this form of exposure, your therapist will help you to vividly visualize your feared stimulus.

This can be a very effective first step in exposure therapy since your therapist will be able to guide your imagination in a productive way.

#3: Exposure therapy can be harmful, especially if not administered by a professional.

Of course, exposure therapy is a tricky therapy to administer.

If the stimulus provided is too much for the patient to handle, it can cause pain and set progress back.

If the stimulus isn't intense enough, no progress will be made in the first place.

Fortunately, therapists and psychologists that specialize in exposure therapy are very well trained and usually able to find the right balance of intensity and manageability.

Exposure therapy can obviously be traumatic, so make sure you see a therapist or psychologist you trust.

#4: Exposure therapy is often co-administered with other types of therapy.

Exposure alone is not enough to reduce symptoms. It's easy (physically) to throw a snake at someone who is terrified of snakes. But if you want that person to then be less afraid of snakes, that's obviously not the right route to go.

The other half of exposure therapy is the "therapy" part.

Exposure therapy administered by a professional almost always combines exposure with talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy uses guided discussion to analyze and then work to improve thought processes.

Instead of throwing a snake at someone, a therapist will introduce the stimulus (the snake) in a controlled manner while guiding the discussion in a way that reduces the fear response.

#5: Is all of this backed by science?

Yes! As with all things, the science behind exposure therapy is continuing to develop, but existing studies show that exposure therapy can be very effective for many patients.

Scientists theorize that consistent and controlled exposure to feared stimuli reduces activity in your amygdala—the fear center of your brain—by promoting activity within your perisomatic synapses. Your perisomatic synapses are the ones that tell your neurons to stop doing whatever they're doing.

In essence, and to vastly oversimplify the process, exposure therapy builds on your brain's ability to calm itself down. This process is called fear extinction and relies on the concept of classical conditioning.

Exposure Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our highly-trained team of anxiety psychologists is on hand to talk about your options for exposure therapy.

We believe that every patient has their own uniquely ideal treatment plan, and we're determined to find yours.

Schedule an appointment or call us to let our patient coordinator match you with the right therapist for your specific circumstances. Feeling better may be closer than you think.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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