What is exposure therapy?
What is exposure therapy? Why do we use it? Do I need it to be successful to get better? The short answer is yes. If you are anxious much of the time- perhaps about what people think of you, about how you can’t get this horrible thought out of your head, about when you’ll have your next panic attack- then yes, exposure therapy is your answer.
So what is it? Exposure therapy’s formal name is Exposure and Response Prevention, ERP for short. Exposure therapy is effectively used for anxiety and OCD and essentially, it’s facing your fears. Prolonged exposures are used for trauma. Now I’m not talking about facing your fears like, I’m afraid of heights so maybe I should go skydiving to face my fear (although more power to you if you do!). I’m talking about you and I, creating a list of all the things that trigger anxiety or panic in you and then facing those fears in a very gradual and thoughtful way. The goal is to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The goal is to learn that YOU CAN HANDLE IT— it doesn’t mean that you’ll like the situation or feel comfortable. All it means is that you survived the situation. And you repeat it time and time again until you don’t feel panicked at the sight of whatever is triggering you. Your anxiety will likely come down all on its own, and I’ll do everything with you. I would never ask you to do something I’m not willing to do myself.
Above, I talked about the exposure part. So what’s the response prevention side of it? When we struggle with anxiety or OCD, we typically try to make ourselves feel better in the moment. So you may avoid a person, place or situation. You may distract yourself (we often love our phones for this one). You may ask the same question over and over even if you already know the answer. Maybe, you are best friends with WebMD and try to figure out what could be wrong with you. Other times, you may feel like you have the longest morning routine ever that prevents you from getting to school or work on time. Or maybe, it’s less obvious to others and you spend time saying something super specific in your mind to calm the anxiety. You do these types of things because even though you probably realize they’re irrational, it makes you feel better in the moment. We all do this in one way or another, but for some, it starts to take over their lives. Paired with facing your fears, we will work together to reduce and eliminate these types of behaviors so you can actually be at work/school and concentrate or be out with friends and have fun.
Exposure therapy is under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), so while we are facing our fears, we will spend time reframing how we think about these thoughts, people, situations, and things because what we tell ourselves matters. We may also utilize Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to better understand your values and how to live them out.
This kind of therapy is not always fun but it works. I can’t sit here and tell you to just stop being anxious or listen to you talk about your anxiety and it magically go away. I wish I had that kind of power because I would love nothing more than to get rid of your pain, but I can’t, no one can. So we will form a team and use all the tactics we know to outsmart the anxiety, OCD, and body-focused repetitive behavior (hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting, etc.). One last thing I want to make sure you understand is that I can’t cure any of this. What we can do is make that loud screaming fear become more a whisper. We can learn that feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable can be empowering and freeing. We can learn to live life in whatever way makes us happiest.
** For parents, see the child section to learn how we will tailor all of this to help your child. The concept is the same, but we will work to make this more fun, motivating, and less scary for the kiddos! 😋