Exposure therapy is a sub-type of Behavioural therapy. It is typically used to treat anxiety disorders and phobias. Still, it can also minimise the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and social anxiety. It is colloquially described as a therapy designed to help one face their fears.
Exposure therapy is any treatment that encourages the systematic confrontation of the feared stimuli. The aim of the therapy is to reduce the fearful reaction produced in reaction to exposure to the said stimuli. Essentially, people who may have a fear of enclosed spaces might avoid places such as the elevator; in the long-term, this can become debilitating, preventing them from carrying out daily tasks.
Exposure therapy rests on the theory of habituation, which theorises that the response to feared stimuli will decrease after repeated exposure to the stimulus. For example, when one initially dips their food into a river, the temperature can feel too cold. Still, eventually, with acclimation, the water doesn't feel as cold. Similarly, the Extinction theory explains fear responses as being caused by unconditioned stimuli that may have been the cause for a fear response, for example, a dog bite. Through stimulus generalisation, fear reactions become learned (conditioned response). They are elicited by other stimuli, such as dogs that are not dangerous (conditioned stimuli). Because of the aversiveness of the conditioned response, fearful individuals are motivated to avoid the conditioned stimuli. Exposure therapy helps them by being introduced to dogs that are well trained and do not bite. Hence. Exposure to dogs (conditioned stimuli) without being bitten (absence of unconditioned stimulus) weakens the relationship between the conditioned stimuli and the fear of conditioned response.
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Exposure therapy can be dangerous as it elicits extreme physiological responses produced during fear, it should only be practised by highly trained and licensed therapists in a controlled environment. Otherwise, conversely, exposure therapy can end up causing more trauma among patients. If you or anyone you know is looking to seek exposure therapy, make sure the look into counsellors’ credentials, and past experience with the same.