February 21, 2023 10:50 am

Psychology Element

Do you experience anxiety or fear over specific situations or objects and are looking for a way to help the distress you feel? If so, keep reading this article because we’re going to go over Exposure Therapy.

Exposure therapy is one of the most commonly recommended therapies for people with anxiety or phobias and has been proven to be highly successful.

If you experience anxiety or phobias, it’s best to speak to a doctor or psychiatrist so they can guide you through the process. If you have a severe anxiety disorder, phobia, or PTSD, it’s advised to not try exposure therapy without professional assistance in case the attempt only leads to symptoms worsening. 

However, if you only have mild anxiety or phobias, having these exposure therapy tricks in your back pocket can really help!

First, What is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure therapy is a technique based on the idea that if you are exposed to stimuli that you fear for an extended amount of time, eventually, the fear will become extinct. 

This theory is based on research performed by cognitive psychologists. Cognitive psychologists focus on mental processes like thinking, perception, memory, and all other areas involved in the ways we use our brain.

Cognitive psychology is especially important when studying fears and phobias, primarily due to three main cognitive events that are reported to happen when someone is afraid of something. 

The three main mental cognitions that motivate fear are:

  1. Experiencing a loss of control when presented with an anxiety-inducing stimulus.
  2. Unable to make a coping decision to reduce the real or imagined threat.
  3. An individual’s personality. If being naturally neurotic is a trait in their personality, they’re more likely to develop anxiety and phobias. 

All these factors can lead to the production of a phobia or anxiety toward a stimulus. However, exposure therapy makes these cognitions related to fear easier to tolerate. 

Basically, exposure therapy is performed by forcing an individual to experience something that they’re afraid of, but in a controlled setting. 

Once the individual experiences the initial fear response associated with fear, they will eventually learn to mentally adapt to the stimulus once they realize the threat isn’t as urgent as they initially expected. 

To make it easier to understand, we’ve come up with an example. 

Imagine that a person is terrified of kittens. Seeing a kitten sends this person into a debilitating tailspin of fear and anxiety, prepared to fight for their lives when there is a kitten in the room.

Then, that person is locked in an empty room with a cute, little cat. They might thrash and scream, banging on the door to be released from the dangerous kitten in their presence.

But, after some time, eventually, the person realizes the kitten hasn’t harmed them. Maybe they scratched them a couple of times, but it wasn’t fatal like they expected. Once they’re forced with a reality that doesn’t match their fears, they’re forced to mentally adapt to their environment. It might take longer for some than others, but eventually, their body will burn out from being afraid. 

Once they begin to adjust to the fear, eventually, the fear becomes extinct. This is the principle that exposure therapy is based on. In exposure therapy, however, typically an individual will work their way up to being physically in the presence of a threatening stimulus. 

What types of disorders are often treated with exposure therapy?

Social anxiety

This can be specific social events or socializing in general. Social anxiety can be very debilitating to an individual, as socializing is an integral part of our overall well being. Whether you’re afraid to talk to your coworkers and instead hide inside your cubicle during lunch, or you’re even afraid to answer your phone and go to the grocery store, exposure therapy has shown great results for treating social anxiety.

Specific phobias 

Specific phobias, such as a fear of spiders or thunderstorms, can also benefit greatly from exposure therapy. While there may be a real threat posed by each of these phobias, the majority of the time, the severity or likelihood of the threat is small. However, despite the level of danger they pose, these phobias can cause mental anguish and even embarrassment when forced to confront them unexpectedly. 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Exposure therapy has also been known to be beneficial for those with obsessive-compulsive disorders, or OCD. People who have OCD have a lot of anxious thoughts that are associated with a certain compulsion, which may be a reason for acting on them. 

People with OCD may perform compulsions as a way to relieve or avoid the anxiety that is triggered when the compulsion isn’t complete. One method therapists recommend is to force yourself to think about anxious thoughts for as long as possible until the anxiety relieves. Eventually, even the fear of anxiety can become extinct.

These are just a few mental health issues that can benefit from exposure therapy, but there are others too, such as PTSD or Panic Disorder. 

Now we’ll go over the steps to practicing Exposure Therapy at home.

Remember, while our tips are great, they do not replace professional therapy. Our at-home method is great for mild anxiety or phobias, but if your symptoms are moderate to severe, attempting this could worsen the symptoms.

If you’re struggling with anxiety or phobias, it’s important to talk to your doctor or psychologist about exposure therapy. If you’re dealing with extreme symptoms, often the therapist will guide you through the process to ensure it’s done correctly.

It is recommended that you have a support person, like a friend or family member, during this in case the symptoms increase to a dangerous amount. For many phobias, like social phobias, it will be necessary to have at least one person, so it’s best to already have at least one trustworthy person to support you before you begin.

If you only have mild symptoms and you have a support person, you’re going to love the six steps to performing the technique at home!

Step 1. Research about your anxiety or phobia as much as possible before beginning. 

This might be a lengthy process, but it’s crucial to perform this technique without doing harm. Thankfully, there are tons of studies and articles online explaining anxiety or specific phobias which makes this step easier than ever. 

Research is important so you can understand as much about the source and triggers of your fears and why they are happening. If you are unaware of why your anxiety is happening, you may try to expose yourself to the wrong stimulus and worsen the symptoms. Understanding your anxiety is always an important step in exposure therapy. 

Once you feel you’ve completed enough research to have a proper understanding it’s time to move onto the next section!

Step 2. Create a “Fear ladder”

A fear ladder is a term coined to describe a list that is made up of exposures related to a phobia or anxiety you have, ranked from the least distressing to the highest.

For example, if you had a fear of public speaking, your fear ladder might look something like this. 

1. The lowest anxiety, you might begin reading your presentation or speech outloud to your support person with your back turned to them.

Then, they will gradually increase like this. 

2. Read the speech out loud to your support friend while facing them.

3. Perform it in front of three people. 

4. Read the presentation to your support person, but deliberately make mistakes. 

5. Read and make the mistakes to your support person and two others.

6. Read the speech to a larger group.

7. Read the presentation and deliberately make mistakes in front of the large group.

Using a fear ladder helps you ease into exposing yourself to the fear. By making baby-steps toward your main source of fear, instead of jumping right into it, you’ll feel more confident and adaptive when confronted with your biggest fear at the end of the fear ladder. 

Now that you know how to make a fear leader, let’s move onto the third step in exposure therapy. 

You can watch this article if you prefer watching instead.

Step 3: Have your support person hold you accountable. 

Before you begin, ask your support person to hold you accountable during the exposure. When you’re performing the items on your fear ladder, your anxiety may become so strong that you stop midway. By doing this, you may make your symptoms worse in the future. 

Your support person can hold you accountable to ensure that you continue to expose yourself to the stimulus until your anxiety is relieved. 

Step 4. Learn strategies that soothe you. 

There’s many different relaxation strategies, but it’s important to find one that really works for you. Whether it’s a breathing exercise or smelling lavender before you begin, research strategies and find one that works for you. 

It’s important to have these strategies because you cannot take breaks during exposure therapy, as you must remain in the presence of the stimulus until the anxiety is relieved. Having relaxation strategies ready will help you get through the moments when you want to quit the exposure but need to continue pushing through.

Step 5. Begin the exposure

Beginning with the first item on your fear ladder. The most important thing is to not quit the exposure therapy before your anxiety is gone. For things that have a time limit (like performing a speech), continue to re-read that speech to your support person until you are no longer anxious about it. 

If your fear ladder is for a phobia, like snakes, and you begin by looking at pictures of snakes, do not move to the next photo until the fear of the first picture is relieved. It’s also good practice to return to the first exposure at a later time to ensure the anxiety still isn’t triggered. 

If you begin feeling dizziness from the anxiety and need to take a break, that’s perfectly fine, but you must return to the stimulus until the anxiety is relieved. 

You do not need to complete everything on your fear ladder in one day. For many phobias, this would be simply impossible, regardless. So long as you complete each item on your list until the anxiety is gone, you can take breaks in between each item on the fear ladder. 

Step 6. Complete the exposure therapy as many times as needed until the fear is extinct

Complete the items on your fear ladder until your anxiety toward the situation is gone. This might take several tries. Occasionally, the anxiety may return even though you thought you were cured of your phobia. It’s perfectly fine to redo the exposure therapy as many times as necessary until you feel comfortable with the stimulus that previously scared you.

And that’s the steps to perform exposure therapy at home! Do you have any experiences with trying exposure therapy? If so, let us know in the comments below!

About the Author

Psychology Element helps you to understand your own psychology, your relationships, and various mental disorders.

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