What is exposure therapy and how does it work?

Exposure therapy is helpful to treat a wide-range of anxiety and OCD-related disorders.  The purpose of exposure therapy is to change behavior.  When using exposure therapy, you challenge yourself to do things differently to eventually create less suffering. To learn to do things differently, you must first be tempted to do what you normally would.  You know that your typical way of responding to stress isn’t working, but changing this isn’t as simple as you’d hoped.  

When you expose yourself to a difficult situation and can prevent yourself from engaging in unhelpful behaviors, you have a window for change.

Let’s use a classic OCD example to explain how exposure therapy works:

Tamra struggles with contamination OCD and is afraid of becoming sick from germs.  Because of her fears, Tamra engages in excessive handwashing and avoids touching objects that her OCD classifies as dirty. To begin, we rank different triggering situations and develop our plan of when to tackle each one.  We begin with the least triggering situation, which in this example would be touching the doorknob of her front door.  Typically, after touching the doorknob, Tamra would avoid touching anything else and would go straight to the bathroom to wash her hands 3 times.  In an exposure therapy session, we have decided that Tamra would have to wait 1 minute before washing her hands and could only wash 1 time. By preventing herself from engaging in her compulsion to wash her hands 3 times, Tamra is challenging her OCD.  By challenging her OCD in this way, she is eventually able to refrain from engaging in compulsions. 

In exposure therapy, we always start small and work our way up the hierarchy until we reach the most triggering situation.  We teach anxiety-management and cognitive strategies to help our clients cope with the increase in anxiety that comes from change. 

The experience of anxiety is almost paired with the behavior of avoidance.  If we have a phobia of dogs, we avoid dogs.  If we are afraid of experiencing a panic attack while driving, we avoid driving long distances.  If we are afraid of dying in a plane crash, we avoid flying.  But this makes the world a scary place, and these things can’t be avoided forever.  By using exposure therapy, we can learn to feel safer in this world and more confident in our ability to thrive.

Anxiety, Individual Therapy, OCD




What is exposure therapy and how does it work?

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