Exposure Therapy: Find Freedom From Fear & Anxiety


Written by Lauren Helm, Ph.D. 

“Face your fears.” The wisdom of this adage is built into exposure therapy, an intervention that has been extensively researched and shown to be very effective in treating various anxiety disorders. What is exposure therapy? This blog will break down why exposure therapy is used for anxiety, and how it works:

Why Exposure Therapy is Used for Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are characterized by anxiety that has taken on a life of its own, interfering with a person’s relationships, work, and quality of life.  Although fear and anxiety are normal emotional responses to threat (these emotions motivate us to avoid potentially harmful situations), anxiety disorders are characterized by pervasive and functionally-impairing levels of anxiety. It is proposed by behavioral psychologists that anxiety disorders develop as a result of classical, operant, and vicarious conditioning, important psychological concepts from learning theory that inform and guide exposure therapy.

Classical conditioning (Pavlovian conditioning) refers to associative learning. A conditioned response usually occurs after repeated pairing of a conditioned stimulus (usually a neutral stimulus) with an unconditioned stimulus. If an aversive stimulus (e.g. a loud, startling noise) that leads to an unconditioned response (e.g. a startle response) is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus (e.g. a fuzzy teddy bear), the two stimuli become linked, and the neutral, conditioned stimulus (e.g. the fuzzy teddy bear) will now evoke a similar response (e.g. a startle response, now considered a conditioned response) to the aversive stimulus. Classical conditioning is thought to play a role in the development of chronic, problematic anxiety. For example, let's imagine that a person becomes unpredictably violently ill and experiences serious, uncontrollable vomiting (i.e. the unconditioned stimulus) while he is shopping in a grocery store. He feels very anxious and on edge (i.e. the unconditioned response) as a result of the unexpected and severe nature of the illness. For some reason, he becomes ill on a few separate trips to various grocery stores, just by coincidence, and begins experiencing severe anxiety (i.e. the conditioned response) associated with even thinking about going into a grocery store (i.e. the conditioned stimulus). He stops going to grocery stores because of the severe anxiety and fear of experiencing another illness episode (even though grocery stores are not the direct cause of either becoming sick or the original anxious response) and his ability to take care of his needs is compromised. 

Operant conditioning is also thought to play a role in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. Operant conditioning is a behavioral principle that refers to the learning that occurs because we experience either "reinforcement" or "punishment" as a consequence of something that we did or didn't do. This is learning that occurs as a result of the consequences of our actions. Reinforcement refers to anything that feels rewarding to us, and brings us pleasure or relief. Punishment refers to anything that is aversive or painful - something we do not want to experience. The man in our example above who became very ill found substantial relief (i.e. reinforcement) from avoiding going into grocery stores, which reinforced his use of avoidance behavior, and made him more likely to do avoid grocery stores in the future. When we avoid or escape something that makes us feel afraid, we feel relief, and simultaneously may make the conclusion that because we found relief, we must have escaped true danger. In sum, fear and anxiety are reinforced and strengthened as a result of the short-term relief that avoidance behaviors provide. An avoidance behavior is anything we do (or do not do) to avoid or escape something that causes (or "triggers") anxiety. However, avoidance of anxiety can lead to an escalating cycle of anxiety and avoidance. The next time we encounter the feared stimulus (i.e. the thing that triggered our anxiety, whether it be a person, place, thing, thought, memory, emotion, or physical sensation) in the future, the more likely we are to experience a more heightened fearful or anxious response (because we believe it to be truly dangerous), and to have stronger urges to avoid or escape.

Vicarious conditioning is social or observational learning - meaning that we learn by watching the consequences of others' behavior as they interact with the world. A young child may learn that the world is a dangerous, scary place by watching her mother look frequently frightened and anxious, commenting that she must always be on guard because otherwise she will get hurt. Perhaps a fear of dogs is developed by watching a friend get seriously injured from being bitten by a dog. We learn about the dangers of the world by observing others go through something frightening, and how they react, even if we have not directly experienced the same thing ourselves.

What It Is & How It Works

In exposure therapy, a therapist collaborates with her client to generate a list of relevant anxiety-provoking experiences (that are not actually dangerous) intended to elicit the very fear that the person has been avoiding. Exposures are developed based on the types of situations and emotional experiences that are avoided and cause problems in an individual's life. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, it is an extremely effective behavioral approach that helps individuals free themselves from the problematic cycle of anxiety and avoidance. Essentially, the reinforcement of avoidance is “blocked” during exposure therapy, and the client completing exposures begins learning how to face his or her fears without avoidance. In doing so, habituation occurs, which is like desensitization. When someone is exposed to something fear-provoking (that does not lead to a negative outcome) over enough time, the fear-provoking situation begins to lose potency. So long as the situation the client is exposed to is not truly dangerous, anxiety and fear will naturally drop off. With repeated exposures, the level of anxiety that is triggered becomes less intense and long-lasting. When avoidance is prevented during exposure therapy, the fear/anxiety response is no longer reinforced and strengthened. This leads the fear response to extinguish, fading away as time passes. New learned associations often occur after the feared-outcome does not occur, and the belief that the anxiety-causing situation was dangerous becomes less powerful and salient (e.g. "I guess I am safe and okay after all!"). 



Most people have trepidation about starting exposure therapy. It is understandably very uncomfortable, at least in the short-term. However, the long-term benefits can far outweigh the discomfort that may occur along with exposure therapy. Usually, it turns out that we hold beliefs about emotions (especially the emotions of fear and anxiety) that interfere with our willingness to effectively face our fears.

Common myths about emotion typically include beliefs that:

  • Fear or anxiety will continue to escalate (without a ceiling effect or peak) indefinitely until the person gets away from whatever is causing them anxiety
  • Fear or anxiety will become so intense that it will cause physical harm or death
  • Fear or anxiety will become so intense that it will cause psychological damage, insanity, a loss of control, etc.

These beliefs often reflect a fear of emotions stemming from a commonly-held belief that emotions are dangerous. In and of themselves, emotions are not dangerous – they are physiological sensations (along with thought & urges). The sensations are designed to motivate us to act. The feelings that come along with emotions may be experienced as overwhelming (especially when we don’t understand them or it feels as though they can do us harm), but they will not hurt you (and it is not physically possible for them to intensify beyond a certain point). Frequently, exposure therapy results in the added benefit of being able to tolerate and accept intense emotions, and the learned experience that it is safe to fully feel your emotions. It’s what you do with your emotions that count – how we ACT can have a beneficial or detrimental effect on our lives and well-being. Therapists help you to learn how to effectively respond to your emotions, so that they don’t restrict your way of life.

A therapist who is well-trained in exposure therapy principles and will explain in more detail why it is not the case that intense, acute emotional experiences cause harm. In fact, one of the principles of exposure therapy is to ensure that individuals are absolutely not caused harm – otherwise that would defeat the point! Exposure therapy is all about learning that despite the anxiety, there is no danger, but rather, safety. Once this is sufficiently experientially learned and processed (not just known intellectually), dramatic change begins to occur.

Don’t worry – your therapist will collaborate with you to figure out the best pace of treatment. Depending on your needs, you may opt to participate in flooding (which essentially means that you face some of your most intense fears right away), or the more commonly used approach, gradual exposure (you work your way up an exposure hierarchy, starting with mild-moderate fears). Both approaches have been found to be equally effective, but differ in the length of time that they may take to complete, and in the likelihood of premature drop-out. Remember, exposure requires repeated practice facing your fears until a re-learning occurs. Sticking with exposure therapy until anxiety has naturally begun to dissipate (or tolerance of anxiety has increased) is essential for success.

It isn't easy by any means. But for many, completing exposure therapy can be deeply worthwhile. Finding out that you can successfully face your fears helps you to learn on an experiential level that you are *safe,* even if fear or anxiety show up. It may also help you connect with the tremendous strength and resilience that you have within you to help you move through challenge - inner resources that are invaluable for rebuilding a fundamental sense of trust in our ability to navigate what life brings us.

Are you interested in using exposure therapy to tackle your fears? If you'd like to speak with Dr. Lauren Helm, a licensed clinical psychologist at Rise Psychology trained in exposure therapy, please click here


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Blog reposted from Center for Stress & Anxiety Management blog: http://www.anxietytherapysandiego.com/blog/2015/2/21/swy4tbpb4algabok9hnlhw46us518b