What is Exposure Therapy?

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Exposure therapy is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy technique that is often used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and phobias.

In PTSD, exposure therapy is intended to help the patient face and gain control of the fear and distress that was overwhelming in the trauma, and must be done very carefully in order not to re-traumatize the patient. In some cases, trauma memories or reminders can be confronted all at once (”flooding”), while for other individuals or traumas it is preferable to work gradually up to the most severe trauma by using relaxation techniques and either starting with less upsetting life stressors or by taking the trauma one piece at a time (”desensitization”). A therapist works with the client to determine which method is best suited for the particular client and their trauma.

In phobias, exposure therapy is used in conjunction with relaxation exercises and/or imagery. In conjunction with learning how to bring about a relaxed state at-will, the therapy technique gradually exposes patients to what frightens them and helps them cope with their fears.

Exposing someone to their fears or prior traumas without the client first learning the accompanying coping techniques — such as relaxation or imagery exercises — can result in a person simply being re-traumatized by the event or fear. Therefore exposure therapy is typically conducted within a psychotherapeutic relationship with a therapist trained and experienced with the technique and the related coping exercises.

 

APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2009). What is Exposure Therapy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-exposure-therapy/0001640
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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