Exposure therapy is one of the tools commonly used by therapists who work in treating anxiety disorders of various kinds; it is a tried and tested technique that has been around since the 1950s and that has been clinically proven to be an effective approach to managing and treating anxiety, including generalised anxiety disorder, phobias and more. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you can work with your therapist to get it under control using exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy involves exposing you to the source of your anxiety, or the context in which you typically experience anxiety, in a safe space in which you face no actual danger and can cease the engagement at any moment. Over time, you will become more adept at overcoming your anxiety or other negative emotions associated with the factors that trigger them as you learn how to regulate your emotions and respond in a more helpful way to the things and situations that cause your anxiety. While it can be initially difficult to confront your anxiety, you will find that you become gradually more confident as your skills in this area incrementally grow.
It is important to be clear from the outset about which things and circumstances trigger anxiety for you. It helps to use a “hierarchy of feared situations” table, as shown in the provided template, which you can fill in with the basic details about which triggers make you anxious, and then use to rate them on a scale of one to ten in terms of how distressing they are to you. For example, you might fear public speaking, dealing with large crowds in social gatherings such as parties, and manoeuvring your way through a hectic public transport system. If public speaking is your number one fear, it will be the one that triggers the strongest sense of anxiety and you might give it a rating of ten, and then give the other triggers a lesser rating according to the level of anxiety that you experience in association with them. If you fear dealing with public transport systems the least, for instance, it makes sense to tackle this lesser fear first. That way, you can learn the skills you need to manage anxiety without risking becoming overwhelmed by very strong emotions.
Once you and your therapist have identified the precise factors that trigger your anxiety, you can start to work together to identify exactly what happens in your body and in your mind when you start to experience it. Over time, you can be exposed to progressively greater stimuli that typically trigger anxiety in you and, incrementally, adopt strategies that help you to respond to these stimuli in a different way, and to manage your emotional and physiological responses more effectively. Many therapists prefer to start with the anxiety-causing factors that rate lowest on your fear hierarchy, and gradually work with you until you are able to deal with those that rank highest.
Exposure therapy can be used in concert with other techniques such as mindfulness meditation that have been proven to help people to manage difficult emotions in a more useful way.
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For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.
We also have an article on a video of exposure therapy by Dr Becky Spelman and why exposure therapy is so good for overcoming anxiety.