What Is Exposure Therapy?


Exposure therapy is an evidence-based practice for anxiety related disorders including generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, post traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

What Is the Goal of Exposure Therapy?

The goal of exposure therapy is to help people confront and overcome their fears by gradually exposing them to the things that make them anxious or afraid. The rationale behind doing so is this: when a person is afraid of something, they usually try to avoid it, which leads to consequences and continues to fuel their fear.

For example, someone with anxiety may be afraid of socializing, so they avoid people and don’t have any friends as a result. This example illustrates how problematic avoidance of fears can be. Exposure therapy says that in order to lead healthy, fulfilling lives we need to overcome our fears, not avoid them.

What Happens During Exposure Therapy?

During exposure therapy, a therapist guides you through the process of confronting whatever causes you anxiety. There are three types of exposure therapy: in vivo, imaginal, and flooding.

In Vivo

In vivo (“in life”) exposure therapy is when a person gradually exposes themselves to anxiety provoking situations in real life in an effort to desensitize themselves from these experiences. For our example client with social anxiety, this might look like beginning to talk to people online through the video games they play, then beginning to text or talk on the phone with the acquaintances they have made through video games, then eventually meeting these friends in person.


Imaginal exposure therapy is when a person participates in a guided imagery session that has them imagine themselves being exposed to triggers for their anxiety. In doing so, the person is able to start to identify what they would need to do to overcome their fears. Like in vivo exposure therapy, imaginal exposure therapy is done on a gradual basis. However, because the situation is imaginary, there may be a greater sense of safety than there would be during in vivo exposure therapy.


The third type of exposure therapy, flooding, is when a person is exposed to the most anxiety provoking situation they can identify right away instead of building up to it like in vivo and imaginal exposure therapy do. An example of flooding would be if our example client with social anxiety was instructed to go to a party where there would be lots of people. The theory behind flooding is that fear of a situation can only last for so long. Eventually the person becomes exhausted by the situation and their anxiety begins to decrease.

It’s important to note that all three of these types of exposure therapy should be done under the supervision of a therapist who has experience using these techniques. If you have an anxiety disorder and feel exposure therapy could be an important component of your recovery, The Light Program has trained counselors who can help. Find a location near you or reach out to our admissions team.

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