Exposure therapy. I’m sure you’ve heard the term before. But what does it entail exactly? For starters, exposure therapy is a psychological treatment. And it was developed to help people confront their fears. We tend to avoid the things we are afraid of. The fears could be objects, specific activities, or even situations. Avoidance may work in the short term. However, in the long term, the fear may become worse.

There are a number of different types of this specific kind of therapy. Because each type is designed to give you more experience with the stimuli. Exposure therapy is done in a situation that is either neutral or positive in the overall experience. The main goal is to become less sensitive to that specific fear. This can be through sound, sight, smell and other environmental factors.

What This Therapy Helps to Treat

Exposure therapy has been scientifically proven to help treat for a range of problems, including:

  • Phobias
  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Different Types of Exposure Therapy

 There are several types of exposure therapy. Each of them uses its own unique methods to help people overcome their fears.

In Vivo Exposure Therapy

This type of exposure therapy takes place in the actual location where you typically encounter your fear. Take the fear of flying for example. In vivo exposure therapy would occur inside a grounded airplane, as that is where the fear is felt most.

Imagined Exposure Therapy

In this kind of exposure therapy, you aren’t exposed to the stimuli you perceive as dangerous. Instead, you imagine that situation in great detail. This helps you confront the fear and overcome it. Imagined exposure therapy is especially helpful for unusual fears. Or for fears based on specific incidents.

Interoceptive Exposure Therapy

Interoceptive exposure therapy helps you have the physical experience of the feared stimuli. But don’t worry, in this method, you aren’t actually being exposed to it. The more a person is exposed to this set of sensations, the less anxious they become when they feel similar sensations. This can shorten or decrease the severity of panic attacks in the future.

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy

VRET presents the stimuli you associate with life-threatening situations through computer-generated sights and sounds. The exposure may be done in a plethora of ways. You can use a desktop computer display, a virtual reality headset, or what is called a CAVE environment. This consists of a cube-like compartment where projectors and audio equipment provide the stimuli.

Virtual reality therapy has shown great promise in treating PTSD as well as anxiety disorders.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD

Prolonged exposure therapy has been used successfully for people who suffer from PTSD. This helps to combat experiences and other truly life-threatening situations. Because the traumatic event caused such great fear, avoidance is usually an issue. In prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD, you confront these fears a little at a time. This is done until you can enjoy a full and happy life. And in result, you get to live life without the troublesome symptoms of PTSD.

The Benefits

There are a number of benefits to this type of therapy. They include the following.

Becoming Less Sensitive

The sights and sounds in your environment can cause you deep distress. Especially if they make you think the danger is near. When you’re exposed to these stimuli in exposure therapy, you become used to their presence in the environment. As a result, you become less sensitive.

Weakening Fear-Provoking Associations

Another way this therapy helps relieve fear is that it breaks previous associations between stimuli and negative outcomes. Through exposure therapy, your mind and body can begin to react to those stimuli for what they actually are.

Learning to Coexist with Fear

Even if the therapy is successful, there will always be situations where it’s natural to feel anxious. A part of exposure therapy is learning to accept fear when it’s natural. And understanding how to live with the fear without becoming paralyzed or panic-stricken.

Reducing Anxiety

After successfully completing exposure therapy, you feel far less anxious. This results from facing the stimuli you’ve become less sensitive to. Yet, even more might change. You may find that you become less anxious overall. Not only in that situation, but in others as well.

Improving Daily Functioning

How many tasks do you avoid because of anxiety? Do you stay away from situations that cause you fear? How well (or not well) are you functioning in your daily life? After exposure therapy, self-care and survival tasks become easier and more manageable.

Decreasing Symptoms of Mental Disorders

Similarly, exposure therapy can also help you decrease the symptoms of mental disorders. These include but aren’t limited to disorders such as: panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. As symptoms decrease, you begin to feel more in tune with the people you interact with. This can help to make you feel more “normal”. Furthermore, it can also help you become more relaxed to enjoy life more.

Can Exposure Therapy Help You? 

Do you think this specific type of therapy may help you cope with your fears? If you need help and support, know we are here to do just that. Cristina Panaccione and Associates Counseling has two locations in the South Hills of Pittsburgh. We are currently accepting a limited number of new patients. So check out our videos to learn more about how we can help you conquer your fears.


* This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Please contact a medical professional for advice.

Tiffany Song obtained her Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003. And she has been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker since 2006. In 2011, she completed a 10-month intensive training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She enjoys helping children, adolescents, and adults overcome the hurdles caused by anxiety and/or depression. She is a cognitive-behavioral therapist at heart. Yet she often incorporates other treatments (exposure, mindfulness, meditation, behavior modification, etc.) to meet her client’s needs. She spent six years working as a behavioral therapist at a pediatric practice. She has also provided in-home family therapy and trauma-focused therapy to children and their families. Most recently, she has provided therapy in a private practice setting since 2013.