Mandy Kloppers

Stepping Out: The Definition of Exposure Therapy and What It Treats


The helpless feeling you get in the face of fear is no joke. If you or someone you know is dealing with anxiety or fears, it can feel limiting.

The many types of therapy available can make it hard to know what will help. Exposure therapy is one way someone dealing with fear can learn to overcome and even eliminate it.

Here is an explanation of the definition of exposure therapy, who it helps, and how it works.

What Is the Definition of Exposure Therapy?

This type of therapy is a collection of techniques that a licensed therapist uses to help someone confront their fears. Patients can confront their fears all at once, a technique called flooding, or they can try to work through them a little at a time. That method is called desensitization.

Exposure therapy is helpful and safe in the right environment, but a therapist won’t attempt it without first teaching the patient some coping mechanisms. This includes things like meditation, visualization, and relaxation techniques. The patient needs to have the skills to calm down on their own before they can confront any fears they’re harboring.

What Does Exposure Therapy Treat?

Treatment with exposure therapy is especially effective for patients with PTSD. This disorder isn’t only a problem for war veterans and soldiers, but anyone can get PTSD from a traumatic experience. It often occurs for victims of abuse and assault, and women are twice as likely to get PTSD as men.

Exposure therapy is also helpful in anxiety cases, as well as for people who have severe phobias. While anxiety is a natural bodily reaction to stress, it can overwhelm a person and show up any time, even in a situation that’s not stressful. Exposure therapy can help a patient deal with the bodily reactions and anxious feelings.

How Does It Work?

Your therapist exposes you to your fears, helping you confront them. This may be through imaginal exposure, where you’re asked to remember the stressful situation and imagine it happening again. You could also wear virtual reality goggles and confront fears in a virtual world that feels real.

Depending on the fear, some therapists also use real-life exposure to help patients confront fears. It’s more practical to use this method if the patient is afraid of objects, rather than situations.

Exposure therapy helps with emotional processing. The patient learns to associate new emotions with fearful situations, rather than the learned ones. This way they become more comfortable with feeling fear, and they can be more realistic about activities or objects that cause fear.

Patients also find that exposure therapy and counseling help them decrease their fears or eliminate them. They have fewer situations where they feel fearful or they don’t have them at all anymore for the objects or activities that were problematic. What’s more, if they come across new situations where they feel fear, they have the confidence and skills to handle it.

Healing and Peace

Now that you know the definition of exposure therapy, you can determine if it’s a good course of action for you. If this sounds like a way that you can find healing and peace, ask a mental health professional about it.

Your therapist will teach you coping mechanisms first so that you have techniques to get you through. It’s not something to attempt with anyone who isn’t licensed.

Did you find this information helpful? Explore some of our other posts!

Mandy X