Huffpost Healthy Living

Conquering Fear: How Exposure Therapy Works (PHOTOS)

Posted: Updated:

What's your phobia? Spiders? Snakes? Are you scared of the dark? Whatever your bugaboo, I have some good news: According to a recent study, you might be able to get over your phobia... fast.

"But why would I want to get over my phobia?" you might be asking. To which I would respond, "Because it could be having an adverse effect on your joy -- or even your health. People who are afraid of needles, for example, might avoid getting flu vaccinations or donating blood. Those who are phobic about flying -- or airports -- miss out on the wonderful new experiences that air travel can bring.

Okay, back to the study. Lead author Katherina K. Hauner, a post-doctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and her colleagues studied exposure therapy's effect on fear. Their findings? "A single session of exposure therapy can eliminate recalcitrant and disabling fear of phobogenic objects or situations." Translation: Exposing yourself to something you're phobic about even one time can nullify said phobia completely.

Really.

Exposure therapy's not a new concept, but Hauner et al's study seemed so definitive I wanted to delve into it a little deeper. Here's what Hauner had to say.

HuffPost: Can you tell me what exposure therapy is?
Katherina K. Hauner: "Exposure therapy... is based on slowly approaching the feared object or situation, in order to overcome the original fear. It is usually done in a series of hierarchical steps, starting with a relatively low level of engagement with the feared situation, and increasing the level with each step. For example, for exposure therapy with a dog phobia, we might start with just looking at a very small puppy from many feet away, and eventually work our way up to petting a very large dog. The steps of the therapy are usually catered to the individual, depending on where he or she is able to start."

What's the difference between a fear and a phobia?
"Fear is a natural response that can be advantageous in some situations, but maladaptive if it is excessive. Phobia is fear that is excessive and interferes with one's life. It is a type of anxiety disorder. For instance, being afraid of venomous spiders and avoiding them is not an example of excessive fear. However, being so afraid of any type of spider that one might avoid being outdoors in general is an example of a phobia."

Does exposure therapy treat fears, or just phobias?
"Exposure therapy can be used if the fear is not quite severe enough to reach the level of a phobia, but the individual is still motivated to overcome the fear."

How does exposure therapy work?
"Overcoming fear is about learning to predict and, when possible, control the feared object or situation. During exposure therapy one learns how to approach the feared object or situation, so that it is no longer unpredictable and uncontrollable, which makes it far less threatening."

Are there any fears or phobias that don't respond to exposure therapy?
"Any type of phobia can be treated using exposure therapy. This includes phobias of animals and insects, claustrophobia, phobia of flying, phobia of needles and blood, and many others. Sometimes it takes more than a single session of therapy, but overall, exposure therapy is an extremely effective and very brief form of therapy. The first steps of the therapy are the most difficult, because the patient does not yet know what to expect, but the fear always subsides eventually. As long as the patient is motivated to overcome their fear, and they slowly approach the feared situation rather than escaping from it or avoiding it, they will eventually succeed. In terms of using exposure therapy to overcome a non-phobic fear, I would first make sure that the fear is excessive or unreasonable. If that is the case, and the individual is motivated to overcome the fear, then the process is no different than for a phobia -- except that it's typically faster, because the fear is less severe."

What's your take-home advice for people who'd like to try exposure therapy?
"In general, the key to doing exposure therapy is to go at a reasonable pace, in order to keep progressing but not feel overwhelmed. All the steps should cause a moderate level of anxiety, but not be so difficult that the individual is tempted to escape or avoid the situation. The most important thing is to keep engaged with the feared situation and not avoid it, even though it can be uncomfortable and difficult at first. There is actually quite a bit of research to show that exposure therapy can be done on one's own, without the aid of a therapist. A great resource for this is the book "Mastery of Your Specific Phobia," by Antony, Craske, and Barlow. The book is written for use with a therapist, but it provides a very clear guide of how to do the therapy on one's own. Of course, a therapist can also be helpful in providing feedback, in demonstrating how to approach the feared situation, and in keeping the patient motivated and engaged." (To find a qualified therapist, Dr. Hauner recommends going to the website for the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies at www.abct.org.)

Speaking of exposure therapy, I stumbled upon a great Reddit post that involves exposure therapy of sorts. Reddit user pcgamertemp posted, "Bruce Wayne turned his fear of bats into his superhero name. Due to your fear, what would your name be?" Just for fun, I ran that question by a variety of HuffPost staffers. See the slideshow below for their answers to the statement, "If my fear made me a superhero, I'd be...."

Close
If My Fear Made Me A Superhero, I'd Be...
of
Share
Tweet
Advertisement
Share this
close
Current Slide

(H/T to assistant professor Todd Lambrix and career advisor Katherine Lanigan at Parsons The New School for Design for putting me in touch with slideshow illustrators Dylan Magwood and Thommy Snow.)

For more by Elizabeth Kuster, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

 
From Our Partners