What is Exposure Therapy?
“Exposure therapy” is a general term that refers to behavioral therapies commonly used to treat anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, as well as trauma disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Exposure therapies are often integrated or combined with cognitive behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
Common Forms of Exposure Therapy
Systematic desensitization is one of the most commonly utilized exposure therapies for anxiety disorders, in particular social anxiety and phobias. The treatment process involves the creation of a “fear hierarchy” (or “avoidance hierarchy”) that consists of feared or anxiety-provoking situations ranked in terms of intensity of anxiety or distres. Beginning with the least anxiety-provoking situation, treatment involves proceeding up the hierarchy in a gradual,”systematic” manner. As the individual progresses up the hierarchy he/she learns to more effectively manage and tolerate the discomfort of the feared situations (i.e., becomes “desensitized”).
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP)
ERP is the “gold-standard” treatment or OCD and is similar to systematic desensitization. However, with ERP the focus is more on eliminating problematic behavioral patterns, known as compulsions (often referred to as “safety behaviors”), and strengthening a person’s ability to tolerate uncertainty, both of which are at the core of the pernicious cycle of OCD.