Exposure Therapy – What is it?
Exposure therapy is a form of treatment to help those with various mental health concerns, typically revolving around fear, trauma and avoidance. It is frequently used to help treat individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social and generalized anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), as well as overcoming phobias. We use exposure therapy to assist those with these disorders in facing their fears to break their pattern of fear and avoidance. Avoidance to a fear is a short-term solution that manifests into a bigger issue further down the road. When we engage in avoidance to fears, we are reinforcing the notion that what we fear is truly dangerous, when in a lot of situations it isn’t. The idea of exposure therapy may seem torturous, to force someone to face their fears, however it is actually conducted in a safe, controlled manner and has multiple positive outcomes!
How is Exposure Therapy Done?
There are multiple different pathways to take when implementing exposure therapy. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual and what is most beneficial for them as their own unique person. There are various types and timing techniques that combine together to make the most effective route for the individual. Types of exposure therapy include:
- In Vivo Exposure – This is direct exposure to the feared object, place or situation. The individual will be forced to face their fear in a real-life setting.
- Imaginal Exposure – The therapist will instruct the client to vividly think about or imagine their feared object, place or situation. The therapist may even help with guided descriptions, or ask the client to speak about a feared experience out loud.
- Virtual Reality Exposure – Using virtual reality technology, clients are exposed to their feared object, place or situation. This type of exposure is ideal as a first step in exposure, or for exposure that is not easily accessible, typically used in the case of phobias.
- Interoceptive Exposure – This type of exposure involves intentionally bringing on the physical sensations associated with fear. This can include an increased heart rate or shortness of breath. Experiencing the physical arousal without the fear-based object allows the client to understand the physical arousal associated with fear is not dangerous.
There are many different ways to implement these exposure therapies. Different pacing strategies work well for different individuals. Some of these pacing techniques include:
- Flooding – Direct and fast exposure to the most feared object, place or situation.
- Systematic Desensitization – Using meditation and relaxation exercises in association with the feared object, place or situation to allow the client to reverse feelings of fear and anxiety resulting from the feared stimulus.
- Graded Exposure – Starting with a small level of exposure and slowly building up a resistance to the feared object, place or situation. For example, someone with a fear of heights may be brought up to a second story balcony, and then to a third story, and higher and higher.
Exposure Therapy and the Workplace
For various reasons, an incident can occur in the workplace that results in an employee engaging in avoidance behaviour. When this happens, employees may avoid certain work tasks or avoid coming to work altogether. With the proper resources, Occupational Therapists can assist in implementing a reactivation and return to work plan that involves in-vivo exposure therapy to help get the employee back to work. Afterwards, the Occupational Therapist will help with stay at work strategies to ensure the employee can be productive at work and does not relapse. If you would like to learn more about strategies for the exposure therapy process, check out our Exposure Therapy Webinar!
Gowan Consulting has many resources to assist employees with anxiety concerns. Check out our Applying Work-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Principles to Return to Work Facilitation Workshop or our Managing Mental Health Issues and Return to Work Workshop to learn more. We also have webinars on mental health, return to work and several other topics if self-learning is more your thing!
Want to know how we can assist you personally in the workplace? Contact Us!
American Psychological Association. (2019). Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. What is Exposure Therapy? Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/exposure-therapy
Gowan Consulting. (2019). Exposure Therapy Webinar. Retrieved from: https://gowanhealth.com/product/exposure-therapy/
Images retrieved from google.ca/images/exposuretherapy