Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/22/2022
In the world of comic book heroes and action stars, confronting one’s fears in wild and radical ways is called a plotline. But in the real-life world, mental health has a different name for confronting your fears: exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy can be a great tool for learning to deal with fears and uncertainty, and when you use exposure therapy for anxiety, the benefits can be massive.
To understand why, we need to look at the basics of this therapeutic technique, as well as how they’re applied to what gives us panic.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), exposure therapy is a method of psychological treatment developed to target one thing: fear.
For people whose fears have grown so out of control that they are affecting their daily lives — that they are avoiding certain activities, objects or situations — fear can be like a lead weight around the ankles.
And while avoiding that fear for a day or so might “help” them avoid the negative feelings and panic reactions associated with that fear, in the long term, this pattern of avoidance approach to fear is unhealthy.
In these cases of avoidance behaviors, exposure therapy is a great strategy for pushing yourself through that discomfort. Mental health professionals can use exposure therapy — literally exposing the patient to the source of their fears — to begin to take power away from that fear.
Exposure therapy is effective on a number of mental health conditions and types of mental illness. It can be used to treat PTSD or posttraumatic stress disorder (it’s considered the gold standard for PTSD), OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias.
Oh, and it can help people with generalized anxiety disorder, as well.
Generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and other phobias are all part of the same group of mental health disorders known as anxiety disorders. These conditions can take many forms, from mild to severe, and from specific to very broad in their sources of anxiousness.
Generally, people diagnosed with a form of anxiety disorder will have felt these negative feelings more than once, typically in a pattern of multiple days over the span of weeks.
They can be debilitating conditions, but luckily, all forms of anxiety generally respond well to therapy — including exposure therapy.
There are also several subtypes of exposure therapy.
In vivo exposure is the type of exposure therapy we’re generally accustomed to seeing, and involves someone directly facing the source of their fear. Afraid of spiders? Time to handle a tarantula.
Imaginal exposure is the process of forcing oneself to bring up a traumatic memory that scares you. This is often used for people with PTSD, who are asked to recall their experiences in a supportive, safe environment.
Virtual reality exposure therapy is relatively new, but the technology is a great benefit for people who might want something between the real thing and a safe space. A person afraid of heights might be asked to see them through a virtual reality headset first. A person afraid of snakes might be asked to see them up close through the technology.
Interoceptive exposure is a technique used to help people learn to tolerate unpleasant sensations that are harmless. Someone who is afraid of being in water might be asked to sit in a shallow pool, while someone afraid of the sensation of a racing heart might be asked to do cardio.
Exposure therapy is very effective for anxiety… when conducted correctly.
It turns out that while the “exposure” part of exposure therapy is fairly self-explanatory, some studies have noted the critical and sometimes mishandled part of the exposure therapy is the proper technique for contextualizing the resulting stress.
A 2015 study conducted in the Netherlands noted that education in certain techniques merited “augmentation.” In other words, clinical practice needed more training to bridge the exposure to the therapy.
It’s very important, after exposing a vulnerable patient to the source of their anxiety, to guide them through the experience and the resulting feelings and emotions.
These techniques can be used at a variety of pace. The ultimate goal of exposure therapy can vary from person to person, and the benefits of exposure therapy may be different depending on the results an individual is seeking.
Some people might want to decrease their reactions to the things they’re anxious about, while others might want to unlearn negative associations. People might also engage in exposure therapy to gain self-efficacy or process emotions that haven’t been addressed.
What matters to you, the patient, is most important here. So, the best way to come out of exposure therapy successfully is to set clear goals for what you want to achieve and make sure you share those with your mental health provider.
Yes, exposure therapy works for social anxiety. In fact, social anxiety is one of the named types of therapy in which it’s best to practice in vivo exposure — directly confronting those fears.
As a socially anxious person, you may be called upon not only to attend a social event or a large gathering of people, but also to face the dreaded task of public speaking. An exposure therapist might instruct you to give a speech in front of an audience, or take a public speaking course.
Anxiety is not limited to treatment with exposure therapy. In fact, there are plenty of reasons why an anxious person might not want to (or be able to) expose themselves to the source of their anxiety.
For these people, there are other options for effective treatment.
Therapists regularly turn to another common form of therapy — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — for the treatment of anxiety.
CBT is a system of cognitive restructuring designed to help anxiety sufferers learn to organize their thoughts, stop letting negative or unhealthy patterns of thought take over and gradually learn to control their anxious response and regain control of their daily lives in the process.
For people who suffer from panic attacks, it’s an effective tool for learning how to reduce the severity and frequency of those attacks.
Many controlled studies have shown CBT as an effective tool in anxiety management.
You can read more in our guide, What Is Psychotherapy & How Does It Work?.
Medication may also be a beneficial treatment for anxiety if a health care provider thinks it’s right for you. While some sedatives can help people manage panic attacks, generally the go-to treatment for anxiety disorders these days is antidepressants, and specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (also known as SSRIs) help your brain regulate serotonin, which in turn can help your brain regulate imbalances in your mood — the conditions for depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses to flourish.
A healthcare professional might also recommend lifestyle changes — diet, exercise, sleep, alcohol and drug use, smoking and even how much water you drink can all affect your mental health.
If you’re dealing with anxiety or traumatic experiences, exposure treatments might be one of many tools that can bring you relief, control and balance.
Your success is about learning to control your fears and push through them to achieve your goals. You don’t always need to be on a heroic journey to attain a better quality of life.
And you won’t always be able to do it alone. If you’re struggling to figure out the correct next steps toward the mental health you want, consider talking to a professional today — online therapy is a solid option.