How and Why Exposure Therapy Works
Exposure Therapy (also sometimes referred to as Exposure and Response Prevention or ERP) is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that is all about gradually exposing yourself to the things that make you anxious so that you eventually get used to them and they don’t make you anxious anymore.
This is always done at a pace of your choosing, so that you gradually get more and more comfortable with the things that make you anxious.
It works for any kind of anxiety or OCD and research has shown that it is the most effective treatment for anxiety and OCD.
It’s effective because gradual exposure to the things that cause you anxiety re-trains your brain to no longer react to those things with anxiety.
How Anxiety Works
Right now, your brain looks at the situations, thoughts, objects, and places that trigger your anxiety and decides that they are dangerous. It then uses anxiety as a warning signal to alert you to the danger so you can escape from the trigger in some way in order to reduce the anxiety.
This is called avoidance, and it is the cause of any anxiety problem. Avoidance of anxiety and the things that trigger your anxiety keeps the anxiety going in the long run because it prevents your brain from learning that your anxiety triggers are not actually dangerous.
When you avoid the things that make you anxious in the short-term, your anxiety gets worse in the long-term.
We Help Re-train Your Brain so That it Reduces or Eliminates Anxiety
In order to fix the problem, you must re-train your brain to understand that your anxiety triggers are not actually dangerous.
This can only be done through direct experience…after all, you’ve probably tried talking yourself out of anxiety before or tried to “think rationally” already, right? It just makes you feel crazy because you think “I KNOW this is irrational! I KNOW I shouldn’t be so anxious about this, but I can’t help it!”
Well unfortunately, you can’t talk your brain out of an anxiety problem.
Your brain needs to be convinced by directly experiencing that the anxiety trigger is not actually dangerous. This is what we do in Exposure Therapy.
This may sound scary, but rest assured that we will do it at your pace and guide you every step of the way. We will show you how to do each exposure exercise and, step-by-step, exactly what to do to make it work. In most cases, we can do it with you during our sessions, even if it means working outside our counseling office to help you overcome something that is causing you anxiety.
A Simple Example of How Exposure Works: Pete’s Fear of Dogs
Note: This is just a simplified example to demonstrate the idea. Your problem might be much more complicated than this, but the same concepts still apply. Click here for the answers to frequently asked questions about how and whether exposure therapy could work for your issue. We can also explain specifically how it will work for your issue in a free phone consultation.
Here is a simple example to demonstrate how this form of anxiety treatment works:
Pete is afraid of dogs. But Pete’s children desperately want to get a dog. He wants to make his children happy but also does not want to live in constant fear inside his own home. Here is what is happening:
- Every time Pete is faced with a dog, he becomes anxious.
This is because his brain evaluates the dog as dangerous, and uses anxiety to warn him that he is in danger.
- In order to relieve this anxiety, he runs away from the dog.
This works in the immediate short-term: in that moment, he is no longer anxious because he gets away from the dog (his anxiety trigger).
- However, this strategy does not work for him in the long-term.
The next time he is confronted with a dog, he will be just as anxious or even more anxious because he avoided the previous dog rather than facing it. By avoiding the dog, he prevented his brain from learning that it is not dangerous! If he continues to avoid dogs like this, he will always be afraid of dogs and may never be willing to get a dog for his kids.
Note that Pete can try all he wants to convince himself that the dog is not dangerous by saying things to himself like “The dog isn’t going to bite me”, or “I’m going to be ok, it’s just a dog.” But even though he might already realize his fear is irrational, this will NOT change his brain’s reaction to the dog. He will still get anxious when he sees one.
The only way to change his brain’s reaction to the dog is to learn through direct contact that the dog is not dangerous.
Here is how Exposure Therapy would work for Pete:
- He sees one of our therapists, who gradually helps him spend time with dogs both during and between sessions. First he practices just being in the same room with a dog. Then he practices petting a dog. Finally, he works his way up to holding a dog.
- At first, each step makes him very anxious, but he stays with it.
- As the counseling sessions progress he eventually gets used to being with dogs, and they no longer cause him anxiety. This is because his brain gradually learns from this experience that the dog is not dangerous.
- He is now willing to get a dog for his kids and can comfortably live with this dog without feeling anxious.
This same basic process of Exposure Therapy that would work for Pete’s fear of dogs works for any other type of anxiety or OCD you may be facing, because:
When you do the things that make you anxious in the short-term, your anxiety decreases in the long-term.
Wondering How Exposure Therapy Can Help You?
At this point, you are probably wondering if Exposure Therapy would really work for you. In fact, your mind is probably coming up with all kinds of reasons why it won’t work for YOUR unique type of anxiety! Maybe you’re even wondering if your problem is actually anxiety or something else entirely.
If you have any of these concerns, it is perfectly natural…it’s what anxious minds do, and that’s ok.
It may help to hear about some of the real people we have helped:
Or, you can also click here for an FAQ with answers to questions that clients often ask us about Exposure Therapy, including:
- How long does Exposure Therapy take?
- I am not afraid of something simple and physically concrete like dogs, can Exposure Therapy still work for me?
- I get exposed to the things I’m afraid of all the time. It hasn’t worked so far. Why would Exposure Therapy work for me?
- Therapy has not worked for me before, why would this be different?
Finally, you can contact us to set up a free 20-minute phone consultation with one of our therapists to get your questions answered directly by an anxiety specialist.