Exposure therapy is an effective form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CTB) used in the treatment of phobias, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It is based on the concept of habituation – a psychological process that involves a decrease in response to a stimulus due to repeated exposure to that stimulus over a period of time. It is what we call in common terms ‘getting used to’ or ‘getting accustomed to’ something.
The patients are repeatedly exposed to the situation causing their phobia, anxiety or panic attack until they become so accustomed to it that their unwanted pathological reactions lose their intensity and become manageable. They are also taught how to cope with that situation when it occurs and how to make it less scary for them.
Prolonged exposure therapy is a variation of exposure therapy used to treat post traumatic stress. It involves sessions where patients are first asked to relive their traumatic experiences in their mind. Then they go through a methodical process of establishing what their fears are and gradually confronting them one by one until they achieve the desired result: overcoming their feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and frustration associated with post traumatic stress.
Exposure and response prevention is a therapy used especially in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is a form of exposure therapy where the subjects do not only have to confront their fears and obsessions but also to purposely refrain from the usual responses and behaviours that act as a safety mechanism for them. For instance, for a person who is obsessed with repeatedly checking whether they have locked the door, this program involves leaving the door unlocked and choosing not to lock it for a longer period of time.
Systematic desensitization or graduated exposure therapy is used especially in the treatment of phobias and involves the use of coping strategies in order to control fear and anxiety. People tend to avoid the object or situation that causes their phobia. The systematic desensitization technique aims to break this pattern by gradually and repeatedly exposing them to the feared object or situation, while teaching them to control their irrational fears via these coping strategies. Coping strategies can include relaxation skills, meditation, breathing techniques, positive thinking.
Exposure therapy in its various forms has been proven to be an effective method of psychotherapy and it has changed many people’s lives, making them free from the ‘demons’ inside. In everyday life, this form of treatment is supported by three famous principles:
1. ‘To conquer a fear, you’ve got to confront it’.
2. ‘Habit is the second nature.’
3. ‘Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’.