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. Exposure therapy is a safe and proven technique when used by an experienced, licensed therapist who specializes in these kinds of conditions and treatments. When used properly, scientific research has shown that it can be a powerful method to help a person overcome the anxiety and fear associated with PTSD or 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. A patient is never forced to engage in treatment they feel uncertain about, or are afraid of. A good therapist will help explain the kinds of techniques they would like to use and ensure all of the patient’s questions are answered to their satisfaction.
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, mindfulness, 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.
When looking to engage in exposure therapy to help treat your PTSD or phobia, look for a psychotherapist with experience or a specialty in this kind of psychotherapy. Because of the potential for harm with this specific kind of therapy technique, it is not recommended that a person ask a therapist or other professional who isn’t specifically trained and has a lot of experience in these techniques. It is not something that is as conducive to self-help, or help from a well-intentioned friend to try.
When used properly and professionally, exposure therapy is a safe and effective psychotherapeutic technique.