Exposure Therapy for Phobias: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Manuela Heberle

Manuela has master's degree in counseling and has taught psychology, social psychology, and a tests and measurements course.

In this lesson, you'll learn what a phobia is and how it can be treated with exposure therapy. The lesson includes a concrete example of the therapeutic process for treating a fear of flying, and it also includes a quiz to help you evaluate your level of understanding.

What Is a Phobia?

To better understand exposure therapy, it's helpful to first know what a phobia is. The dictionary defines a phobia as 'a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.'

Being exposed to, or just thinking about being exposed to, an object or situation will evoke significant anxiety and distress in phobic individuals. Clinical psychologists consider phobias to be a type of anxiety disorder that is associated with learned responses related to childhood experiences or with traumatic events.

The list of phobias is practically endless. Some common examples that you might be familiar with include aviophobia - a fear of flying, acrophobia - a fear of heights, and glossophobia - a fear of public speaking. If, for example, you had a flight during which there was extreme turbulence, you could develop aviophobia. If one of your parents demonstrated an extreme fear of heights throughout your childhood, you could yourself become acrophobic. Or, you may be terrified of speaking in public. To lessen your anxiety in these situations, you might ditch the class during which you were scheduled to give a presentation, take a car in place of flying, or avoid bridges, elevators, and other high places.

An Overview of Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a cognitive-behavioral approach that has proven to be effective in treating individuals with phobias and anxiety disorders. The cognitive component addresses the anxiety-provoking thoughts you have about the event or object, and the behavioral component addresses your behavior or actions. This type of therapy is based on facing your fears in an effort to lessen or even eliminate them. Exposure therapy includes (1) identifying core fears and (2) making a plan to confront those fears.

A plan would include examining how you think about the situation or object and countering these anxiety-provoking thoughts with more rational thoughts. Therapy would also include exposure to the anxiety-provoking object or event.

Exposure could be through 'flooding,' a process that requires the client to deal with the situation all at once. More often, however, exposure will be gradual, repeated, or prolonged. The exposure allows you to get used to the fear, thereby training your brain to view the object or situation as non-threatening. The exposure eventually lessens, or even eliminates the fear, anxiety, and distress that underlie the phobia.

Exposure Therapy: An Example

Let's say that you have a fear of flying, and you decide to see a therapist for help. One of the first things the therapist might do is help you to identify the core of your fear. Together, you might trace your fear of flying back to your childhood. Maybe your mother had a fear of flying. Each time you were about to board a plane, she would go on about how unsafe flying is and how things could go terribly wrong. You remember the terror in your mom's face and in her grip, as she reached over to grab your hand each time there was the slightest turbulence. Knowing that the fear is learned, and that it is not grounded in reality, is a helpful first step toward conquering it.

Next, you and your therapist might explore some specific anxiety-provoking thoughts that you hold about flying. Your thoughts might include that if you fly, the plane will crash. In an effort to help you dispute this thought, your therapist might provide information on aircraft safety, along with statistics. And, she might ask you to recall this information whenever you have thoughts about planes crashing.

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