What Is Exposure Therapy And What Can It Treat?

When it comes to treating mental health concerns, there are an endless number of strategies and approaches to choose from. This can make it challenging to narrow down the right one for your situation and unique needs. If you feel stuck and aren’t sure where to turn, it could be helpful to consider a type of therapy that goes beyond just talking, such as exposure therapy. In this article, we’ll explore what exposure therapy is and which disorders and concerns it can treat.

What Is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure therapy is a therapeutic approach that seeks to help people confront their fears through controlled, systematic techniques. It works by gradually exposing people to their fears in a safe, comfortable environment, reducing the individual’s propensity to avoid the object or situation they’re afraid of. While avoidance often only increases fear and panic, confrontation can reduce these feelings. However, approaching each case with sensitivity and patience can be crucial, as moving too quickly may only exacerbate feelings of anxiety.

Exposure therapy can be carried out by oneself in certain cases (such as when facing phobias), but many people choose to involve a professional, such as a therapist, in the process. Having a therapist to work with can help ensure that each step is approached with care and tact, especially if you’re working through difficult emotions.

What Can Exposure Therapy Treat?

Exposure therapy can be effective in treating a range of concerns, including PTSD, phobias, trauma, and more. Let’s explore how:

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Exposure therapy for PTSD might involve a veteran telling their therapist about their experiences in combat and describing the moments they felt fearful. The more they talk about these traumatic situations, the more desensitized they can become to them over time. Instead of feeling anxiety and panic at the thought of these events, they can develop mental resilience and feel a greater sense of control over their thoughts and feelings.

  • Phobias

Most everyone fears something in life, whether it’s an animal, a person, a situation, or an activity. These fears are often manageable, as people typically find ways to avoid them. However, people with phobias find that their fears significantly impact their well-being and keep them from functioning as usual. Luckily, phobias can also be successfully treated with exposure therapy.

Picture someone who is afraid of horses, so much so that even thinking about being around them brings immense anxiety. Helping this individual using exposure therapy may involve having them picture a horse and talking through their feelings until they no longer feel overwhelmed by the thought. Next, they may look at a picture of a horse, and then watch a video of one, all while working through their distress with the therapist. The next step might be to observe a horse from a distance or watch a horse race. Finally, they might be instructed to get close to and then touch a horse. Riding one may be the final step, marking the defeat of their phobia.

  • Trauma

Traumatic events can leave lasting imprints on the mind and body, keeping people from living productive lives and reaching their full potential. Exposure therapy can allow them to heal from these experiences and move forward with a clearer mindset. By slowly approaching the triggers, memories, sensations, thoughts, and feelings associated with the trauma, people can become desensitized to the experience and find relief from their anxiety.

Therapists will often ask their clients to go over their traumatic experiences in detail. While this can be incredibly challenging, with time, it becomes easier and easier to speak openly about the past because the body and mind come to see that they are no longer in danger and do not need to be on alert. Instead of associating their trauma with panic and anxiety, people can learn how to view it in a more neutral light.  


Exposure therapy can be a powerful tool for those seeking a distinct form of therapy. This approach gets people out of their comfort zones in a slow, systematic manner that promotes healing rather than anxious feelings. By keeping an open mind, trusting the process, and continually committing to exposure therapy sessions, individuals facing a range of issues can experience personal growth that leads to a higher quality of life and overall fulfillment.

Disclaimer: The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

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