Anxiety disorders are common among people of all genders, races, ages, and identities. Some people may not even know that they have an anxiety disorder until their symptoms reach an unmanageable point.
Upon receiving a diagnosis, some individuals may reach out to professionals for anxiety treatment. It may even take multiple different treatment methods or strategies for progress to occur.
When those multiple treatment methods fail, it is likely that an individual’s symptoms can worsen.
If you’re someone who has tried various treatments for your anxiety, have you considered exposure therapy? Continue reading to find out everything you need to know.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Before diving into exposure therapy, it is important for you to know the signs of a developing anxiety disorder. These symptoms can start small and gradually build their way up.
Here are the signs of an anxiety disorder:
- Increased heart rate
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Experiencing gastrointestinal issues
- Breathing rapidly
- Difficulty relaxing
- Headaches or muscle aches
- Feeling weak
- Avoiding situations that trigger anxiety
- Constant worrying
- Having a sense of imminent doom
- Nervously twitching or shaking
- Difficulty swallowing
- Needing to use the bathroom frequently
Exposure Therapy Explained
A type of psychological, behavioral treatment, exposure therapy is a method used by therapists to engage their patients with whatever is causing them fear.
The goal is to vastly reduce an individual’s anxiety by exposing individuals to the fears they have. This can happen physically or imaginatively through talk therapy.
For example, if you are afraid of spiders, exposing yourself to spiders may reduce that fear greatly because you’ve now experienced that fear firsthand.
But if you’ve experienced a traumatic event, recalling the event verbally will help reduce the feelings of panic and anxiety surrounding the incident.
You may be wondering if you have an anxiety disorder that exposure therapy can treat. Here are some common fear-based and anxiety disorders exposure therapy is used to treat:
- Social anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Types of Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy on a basic level might not work for everyone. That’s why there are various types of exposure therapy to help with anxiety on an individual level.
Keep reading to discover the different kinds of exposure therapy and possibly find the right type for you!
In Vivo Exposure
This type of exposure therapy involves physically encountering the fear itself gradually. In vivo exposure is a gradual process, either occurring in one long period or over multiple sessions.
Individuals with specific phobias may benefit greatly from in vivo exposure therapy.
Let’s take the spider example: first, a patient may confront an image of a spider. This will scare them, no doubt.
Once they have discovered the image won’t hurt them, the therapist moves on.
The next step in this process involves perhaps bringing a spider into the room with the patient or observing a live spider from afar. Using supporting language to calm the patient, the therapist guides them through their worries.
Lastly, the patient may be encouraged to get near or hold a spider in order to diminish their phobia.
The goal of in vivo exposure therapy is to help the patient understand that their fears are bigger than the thing causing them fear. It helps them to understand that their anxieties are not reasonable.
For individuals with a history of traumatic events, imaginal exposure therapy is better suited for their needs.
During imaginal exposure therapy, a therapist asks the patient to imagine the traumatic event that triggers their anxiety.
In doing so, the individual directly faces distasteful thoughts and/or memories associated with their trauma.
It is important for people who carry trauma to imagine these events in a safe environment with the support of their therapist. For example, in vivo exposure therapy would not be safe for combat veterans or survivors of rape.
This type of exposure was originally initiated to treat panic disorder but was soon found to have effectiveness in treating people with PTSD.
Interoceptive exposure therapy focuses on bodily responses to anxieties, like shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and hyperventilation.
Ways in which a therapist would help with these responses is by training a person to hyperventilate or hold their breath for a brief amount of time in order to become normalized with these symptoms when they happen unexpectedly.
Another very beneficial form of anxiety treatment for sufferers of PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy. This type of therapy consists of in vivo, imaginal, and interoceptive exposure.
Individuals who participate will learn how to effectively manage their breathing while practicing encounters with their fears in the real world and verbally communicating about their trauma.
In 2013, a study was conducted with combat veterans who participated in a four-day prolonged exposure training.
Findings showed a significant reduction of symptoms in veterans with PTSD and depression. The percentage of veterans who met the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD went from 86.7 percent all the way down to 46.2 percent.
Benefits of Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is an effective anxiety treatment. If this alone hasn’t convinced you to look into treating your anxiety by exposing yourself to your fears, here are the benefits:
- Minimized responses to external and internal stimuli
- Regained power of your mind and body
- Developed skills in living with fears when they arise
- Improved self-care and task functioning
- Reduced symptoms of anxiety and other mental disorders
- Increased social skills