Exposure therapy isn’t just a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s also used to treat anxiety, depression, phobias, and more.
If you’ve experienced a traumatic, life-altering event, you might be surprised to learn that one treatment for such trauma — exposure therapy — involves repeatedly reliving the terrible event.
Sounds more harmful than helpful, right? But people who experience their fears over and over again — with the help of a therapist in exposure therapy — can actually learn to control those fears.
How Exposure Therapy Works
Exposure therapy can seem similar to desensitization. People with PTSD, including combat veterans and rape and assault survivors, may experience nightmares and flashbacks that bring the traumatic event back. They may also avoid situations that can trigger similar memories and may become upset, tense, or have problems sleeping after the trauma.
Hanover, New Hampshire, “It’s one of the best treatments we have.” A 2007 report from the Institute of Medicine also found the technique to be effective for PTSD.
Foa published a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that showed a reduction in PTSD and depression symptoms in female survivors of assault after 9 to 12 sessions.
And a 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that adding exposure therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was more effective at relieving long-standing grief than CBT plus supportive counseling.
Effective, But Different, as a Depression Treatment
While research is still ongoing, some experts believe exposure therapy can be helpful for serious depression, too. Depression and PTSD share common features, like flashbacks and memory flooding, says Adele Hayes, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Delaware in Newark. But there are some important differences, too.
“With depression, it’s not necessarily a trauma, but a whole store of memories associated with being a failure, worthless, and defective,” she says. A depressed person’s encounter with a rude clerk at a store may trigger thoughts that seem to back up their fears: that no one likes them, that they are worthless, and so on.
While you won’t forget about the trauma entirely, she tells them, ”It’s not going to haunt you all the time.”
Dr. Foa reassures her patients that they won’t be exposed to dangerous situations. She also tells them, “You are going to find out that you are stronger than you think.”
Although exposure therapy is considered a short-term treatment — 8 to 12 sessions is common — people with more severe conditions (and those with obsessive-compulsive behaviors) may need more time.
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By Kathleen Doheny Reviewed by Kathryn Keegan, MD