Exposure therapy is a type of behavior therapy in which the patient confronts a feared situation, object, thought, or memory. Sometimes, this involves reliving a traumatic experience in a controlled, therapeutic environment. The goal of this therapy is to reduce the distress, physical or emotional, felt in certain situations. It may be used in dealing with anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress.
During exposure therapy treatment, a therapist helps the patient remember a disturbing thought, traumatic situation, or feared object. The therapist also helps the patient deal with the unpleasant emotions or physical symptoms that may arise from this exposure. Through confronting the situations and thoughts that cause stress, patients are often able to learn coping skills, eventually reducing or even eliminating symptoms.
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Patients are usually encouraged to talk about their feelings during therapy and to learn ways to face fears and stressful emotions. They are also encouraged to learn new ways of viewing fears and distressing situations. Hypnosis is sometimes used as part of this type of therapy. Even virtual reality techniques are used at times.
Sometimes, relaxation techniques are taught as part of exposure therapy. These techniques may be very helpful in dealing with both physical and emotional distress. They are intended to help the patient maintain control, even when faced with the situation, object, or thought that causes fear or distress. Often, breathing exercises are taught in conjunction with the therapy.
Exposure therapy is sometimes compared to desensitization. Unlike desensitization, however, this practice produces anxiety in the patient on purpose. Desensitization, on the other hand, combines relaxation with gradual introduction to the anxiety-producing object, thought, or situation. Furthermore, exposure therapy involves exposing the patient to the most distressing thought or situation first, while systematic desensitization begins with that which causes the least fear.
Exposure therapy may include flooding or graduated techniques. When flooding techniques are used, the patient may be exposed to the frightening or distressing thought, situation, or object for as much as two hours at a time. Graduated techniques are considered gentler because the patient may face the distressing stimuli in shorter chunks of time and have more control over the duration of the exposure.