What Is Exposure Therapy?

What Is Exposure Therapy?

xposure therapy is a form of behavioral therapy designed to help you face your fears. 

When you’re scared of a specific object or activity, you may avoid it. For instance, if you’re afraid of enclosed spaces, you may avoid taking the elevator, especially if it’s crowded. While avoiding it can help keep your fear at bay in the short term, it can cause your fear and anxiety to worsen in the long term.

Exposure therapy can help break this cycle of fear and avoidance. It involves exposing you to the source of your fear in a safe environment. Exposure therapy aims to help you overcome your fear so that the object, activity, or situation doesn’t cause anxiety, and you can engage with it meaningfully.

Types of Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy can help treat several conditions, including phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. However, there is a specialized form of exposure therapy, known as exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP or Ex/RP), that can help treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to DeAngelis, ERP helps individuals with OCD face uncomfortable situations and reduce compulsions, which they might engage in to relieve anxiety. “By preventing the compulsion or ritual, you can build insight so that individuals learn that bad things do not happen, even when they do not follow the OCD ‘rule,’” says DeAngelis.

A 2015 study notes that ERP has shown great success in reducing the symptoms of OCD, a condition that was once considered untreatable.


Exposure therapy can progress at different paces. Per DeAngelis, your therapist will guide you to face your fears according to a fear hierarchy or “ladder” that serves as a roadmap for treatment. They can also help you cope with the trauma and anxiety that each step of the process involves.

  • Graded exposure: This involves exposing you to the source of your fear gradually by going up the ladder one step at a time. So, for instance, if you are afraid of needles, the steps could include looking at a picture of a needle, having a covered needle near you, holding a needle, etc., until you’re able to do what you fear most, which is getting an injection.
  • Systematic desensitization: Your therapist may employ systematic desensitization methods to help you relax and get comfortable with each step of this process. These methods can include relaxation exercises like meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Flooding: This method involves exposing you to the highest level of the ladder all at once. Therapists may use flooding if your fear interferes with your ability to go about your daily life. While this approach can help you overcome your fear faster, flooding can be traumatic to experience. A therapist may consider this method only after your anxiety has decreased significantly.
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