Exposure Therapy: What is it, and why does it work?

Exposure Therapy: What is it, and why does it work?

Your body has an alarm system that is there to protect you from possible danger, like from fires, hurricanes or bear attacks. Over time, your body learns more about what types of danger exists in the world and how to protect itself from those dangers. What happens, then, when your body becomes scared by something that is not inherently dangerous? Just as your body can learn to become afraid, we can also help it to learn that it does not need to be afraid in certain circumstances. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is the recommended treatment for anxiety-based disorders because of the way it helps individuals “unlearn” being afraid of certain things.  

How does ERP work?

The first few therapy appointments are all about getting to know the client and their individual needs. Since the client is the expert on themselves, a lot of time is spent understanding the client’s perspective and determining the various contributing factors to the client’s anxiety. 

The client and the therapist then create a Fear and Avoidance Hierarchy. This is essentially a list of all the situations that cause the client to feel anxious or distressed. Each situation has a rating attached to it that signals how distressed the client might expect to feel if they were to face that scenario.

The reason we create a hierarchy is so the client can start to face his or her fears in a gradual manner. There is no throwing the client into the deep-end in ERP! The client identifies a place on the hierarchy to start, and the client and therapist begin at that point. Over time, the individual learns to face situations that invoke certain amounts of anxiety and either get used to the anxiety they are feeling or learn that they can handle their worst-case scenario occurring.

Getting Used to the Feelings

Exposure therapy is sometimes perceived as cruel because it involves an individual facing their fears. This means that they will, inevitably, feel anxious and uncomfortable at times. The purpose of ERP, is to teach the individual that they can survive these feelings and that they can eventually get used to them so that they no longer have to experience them in their everyday lives. Your therapist will never ask you to do something that they themselves would not do!

If you are seeking treatment for an anxiety-related disorder and are interested in ERP, reach out to us at soflapsychologists.com.