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Exposure Therapy Techniques & Types

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Exposure therapy is frequently used to treat psychological disorders related to anxiety. This lesson will define exposure therapy and describe the different techniques and types.

Phobia and Exposure Therapy

Kathleen is deathly afraid of clowns. This irrational fear, or phobia, of clowns is referred to as coulrophobia. Scientists believe that this fear arises from not knowing who exactly can be found behind the disguises clowns wear. The fear was becoming so debilitating for Kathleen that she started having panic attacks whenever a clown was in her presence. After discussing this issue with her counselor, a decision was made to slowly engage Kathleen in exposure therapy exercises in an effort to calm her fear of clowns and allow her to function normally when she encountered them.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which primarily focuses on a collaborative relationship between the patient and therapist, using the Socratic method in a structured environment. Exposure therapy sounds just like what it means: the patient will be exposed to the circumstance he or she is fearful of. The therapist and the patient decide together on a plan of action and level of exposure, and the patient is never forced to engage in an activity he is fearful or anxious about.

Effective therapists ensure that all the patient's questions about the exposure are answered, and attempts to ensure a certain level of comfort for the patient prior to he or she engaging in the event.

Who Benefits from Exposure Therapy?

Exposure therapy is a therapy technique that is often used with people who suffer from anxiety-induced conditions such as those created by:

  • Phobias - the exhibition of exaggerated fears towards specific stimuli. For example, someone can have a fear of clowns, spiders, snakes, or anything else that doesn't quite make sense for the level of fear it creates. Kathleen's fear of clowns discussed at the beginning of this lesson would fall into the phobias category.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - an extreme reaction resulting from exposure to a traumatic event or series of events. A soldier who sees his fellow troops killed during active duty might be prone to developing PTSD.
  • Panic disorder - fear and physical responses to fear that arises when no real reason to perceive danger is present. Someone with panic disorder experiences extreme physical symptoms to stimuli such as rapid heartbeat and labored breathing.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder - repeatedly engaging in the same behaviors in an endless cycle. An example of OCD can include constantly washing one's hands, so much so that they become raw and damaged.
  • Social anxiety disorder - fearing social interactions and social settings where it is required to engage with others. An example of social anxiety would be avoiding malls due to the amount of people present.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder - excessively worrying about everyday life. Someone with generalized anxiety disorder may worry needlessly about traffic conditions, the weather, etc.

Types of Exposure Therapy

There are four different types of exposure therapy. These include:

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