In exposure therapy, a person is exposed to a situation, event, or object that triggers anxiety, fear, or panic for them. Over a period of time, controlled exposure to a trigger by a trusted person in a safe space can lessen the anxiety or panic.
There are different kinds of exposure therapies. They can include:
- In vivo exposure. This therapy involves directly facing the feared situation or activity in real life.
- Imaginal exposure. It involves vividly imagining the trigger situation in detail.
- Virtual reality exposure. This therapy can be used when in vivo exposure isn’t realistic, like if someone has a fear of flying.
- Interoceptive exposure. This therapy involves purposefully triggering a physical sensation that is feared, but harmless.
A 2015 research review showed that within those kinds of exposure therapies there are different techniques like:
- Prolonged exposure (PE). This includes a combination of in vivo and imaginal exposure. For example, someone might repeatedly revisit a traumatic event by visualizing it, and talking about it with a therapist simultaneously, and then discussing it to gain a new perspective about the event.
- Exposure and response prevention (EX/RP, or ERP). Typically used for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), this involves doing exposure homework, such as touching something considered “dirty,” and then refraining from performing the compulsive behavior that is triggered from the exposure.
Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can include imaginal exposure and in vivo, but in vivo exposure is not as common. The 2015 research review above showed that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and imaginal exposure improved general functioning in people with GAD compared to relaxation and nondirective therapy.
There is not a lot of research with exposure therapy and GAD, and more is needed to further explore its effectiveness.
In vivo exposure is typically used for people with social anxiety. This can include things like going to a social situation and not avoiding certain activities. The same 2015 research review above showed that exposure with or without cognitive therapy may be effective in reducing symptoms of social anxiety.
Virtual reality exposure therapy has been used to help people with a driving phobia. A small 2018 study found that it was effective in reducing driving anxiety, but more research still needs to be done with this specific phobia. Other therapies may need to be used alongside exposure therapy.
Virtual reality exposure therapy has been found to be effective and therapeutic to treat anxiety about public speaking for both adults and teens. One small 2020 study found that there was a significant decrease in self-rated anxiety about public speaking after a 3-hour session. These results were maintained 3 months later.
Separation anxiety disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders in children. Exposure therapy is considered the top treatment for it. This involves exposing the child to feared situations and, at the same time, encouraging adaptive behavior and thinking. Over time, the anxiety lessens.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) uses imaginal and in vivo exposure and is often used to help treat OCD. In vivo exposures are done in the therapy session as well as assigned for homework, and the response prevention (not engaging in compulsive behaviors) is part of that. An individual lets the anxiety decrease on its own instead of performing the behaviors that would get rid of the anxiety. When in vivo exposure is too hard or impractical, imaginal exposure is used.
While a 2015 research review showed that ERP was effective, ERP is comparable to cognitive restructuring alone and ERP with cognitive restructuring. Exposure therapy for OCD is most effective when guided by a therapist and not done independently. It’s also more effective when using both in vivo and imaginal exposure, as opposed to solely in vivo.
Interoceptive exposure therapy is often used to treat panic disorder. According to a 2018 research review of 72 studies, interoceptive exposure and face-to-face settings, meaning working with a trained professional, were associated with better rates of effectiveness, and people were more accepting of the treatment.