Exposure is a specific treatment that is in the family of CBTs, as well as one part of the broader CBT approach in the treatment of anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other conditions for which avoidance plays a strong role. It is based on the notion that facing what we fear or dread will allow us to have an important learning experience. For example, we might learn that a dreaded, disastrous outcome will very likely not occur. We might learn that we can tolerate uncomfortable emotion. We might learn that we can live our lives to the fullest even with some level of emotional distress.
Providers who deliver exposure help clients to develop a schedule of feared objects or situations (called a hierarchy), and they work with their clients to find creative ways to systematically and predictably face those feared objects and situations. Some exposures can be done in session (even virtually), and many others are done in between sessions for homework. Some exposures take place in “real life” circumstances (e.g., a person with social anxiety practices initiating conversation with strangers). Other exposures take place imaginally (e.g., a person with obsessive compulsive disorder conjures up an image of contaminating their family members after using a public restroom). Still other exposures are to internal bodily sensations (e.g., a person who avoids the uncomfortable sensation of their heart racing runs in place for two minutes).
Research shows that exposure alone is just as effective as psychotropic medication in treating anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
You can read more about exposure from these sources:
- From the American Psychological Association: https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy
- From Medical News Today: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/exposure-therapy#What-to-expect