Exposure Therapy: Myths vs Truth
Exposure therapy is a technique used by behavioral and cognitive behavioral therapists to treat people with phobias or anxiety. It can be used when the fear is about something specific (as seen in phobias like a fear of snakes, a fear of flying, a fear of public speaking, or some other specific fear), but it is also effective in treating PTSD, OCD, social anxiety, or other anxiety disorders. Over the years there have been many different studies done on the use of exposure therapy, and it has been shown to be effective and safe.
What is Exposure Therapy
Essentially, exposure therapy is the controlled exposure to the object or situation that causes the fear. This is done with the guidance and support of a trained therapist, and if done correctly, should not cause the person being treated to become overwhelmed with their fear or anxiety. So, if you have a fear of say spiders, the therapist might have you do some relaxation exercises to get you into a relaxed state, then show you some pictures of spiders. You would continue this exposure to the pictures until you are able to look at them without becoming overly anxious. At that point, you would move onto something that ranks for you personally as a little bit more anxiety provoking. So maybe there would be a small spider in the room next to where you are. You would then do the relaxation exercises and repeatedly be exposed to this higher anxiety-producing scenario until you are able to sit in the situation calmly. In this way, you are exposed to things that will be increasingly more anxiety-producing, but as you are slowly and systematically exposed to them, you will notice that you will be increasingly able to cope with it, until you reach a point where you are no longer afraid of spiders.
How Does This Work?
Anxiety and fear are known to cause the person suffering from it to start avoiding the situation that caused the anxiety in the first place. This avoidance will have the effect of reinforcing the fear and making it stronger. This is how fear increases and becomes stronger, more entrenched in your psyche. So what is the cure then?
Exposure therapy attempts to break down this avoidance behavior and encourages you to confront your fears head-on. However, it’s not as bad as that sounds! When done correctly, the exposure is down slowly and thoughtfully to minimize any negative effects. In fact, if you become overwhelmed during therapy, that is a sign that you are moving forward too quickly and need to take a step back.
Consider the following myths that people have about Exposure Therapy. Once they are debunked, you may have a very different view of it!
1. MYTH: Exposure Therapy revictimizes people by making them relive their trauma.
FACT: people come to therapy because they are already suffering and facing your fears will help alleviate that. Also, no one is being made to do anything. You are in control of your therapy! Ask any questions you have, express any concerns, and if it still doesn’t sound like something you would want to do, then tell your therapist. There are always other methods to use. If your therapist isn't able to accommodate you in this manner, then absolutely find a therapist that you are comfortable with.
2. MYTH: Exposure therapy will only help with very narrow fears.
FACT: This simply isn’t true. It has been shown to be effective in all types of anxiety disorders including OCD, social anxiety, PTSD as well as with phobias. The key is to slowly break down the connection that has been made between the fear-inducing situation or object and the fear or anxiety.
3. MYTH: Exposure Therapy won’t help me because I have anxiety plus other problems like depression, trauma history, substance abuse, or traumatic brain injury.
FACT: Studies are now showing that if you are able to reduce the symptoms of one disorder, it will decrease the symptoms of any others being experienced by the person. How cool is this?!? So if in addition to having PTSD, you also abuse alcohol (especially if your abuse started after the trauma), successfully treating the PTSD will often reduce your drinking as well. Or your depression symptoms or , your ADD, any other psychiatric disorder you may have.
4. MYTH: People with severe anxiety can’t handle Exposure Therapy.
FACT: Again, research has shown that this type of treatment can benefit people with very mild symptoms to those with severe symptoms of anxiety. Remember, avoiding the trigger only serves to reinforce the fear! Confronting it is empowering and helps to break the connections between the trigger and those feelings.
5. MYTH: Exposure Therapy will actually increase my anxiety.
FACT: Exposure Therapy done with a therapist involves controlled exposure to your trigger, paired with learning new ways of coping with your anxiety to change your internal emotional state. This will lead to decreased anxiety. And studies show this over and over!
Exposure Therapy can be very helpful when learning to face your fear or cope with past traumas. It is a method that exposes you to your fears in a gradual and systematic way to help you overcome your anxiety. If you would like to talk more about this or about anxiety treatment, please follow the link!