Utilizing Exposure Therapy for Effective Trauma Treatment
You might find the idea of exposure therapy daunting. After all, it involves reliving painful experiences in order to better process them and move forward. How can revisiting a traumatic event possibly help? It’s natural to feel wary about this approach — but research has established it as one of the most effective treatments for psychological trauma. In this guide, we’ll explain what exposure therapy for trauma is, why it works, and how you might benefit from seeking out treatment.
If you feel like you could benefit from exposure therapy, keep reading to find out more information about this and other proven techniques for trauma treatment at Catalina Behavioral Health.
What Is Prolonged Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy, or prolonged exposure therapy, is a type of psychological treatment used to reduce fear or anxiety associated with a traumatic memory or experience. During a prolonged exposure session, you would be encouraged to re-experience the traumatic event in a safe, controlled environment. This is also referred to as repeated exposure. This can be done through visual aids (e.g., pictures or videos), role-playing, or verbal descriptions of the event.
The goal of exposure therapy is to help you process and move past the trauma at a manageable pace. It’s important to understand that this type of treatment isn’t meant as a quick fix — it requires patience and dedication on your part, but can ultimately yield powerful results for long-term healing.
How Does Exposure Therapy Work?
Exposure therapy relies on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles, which posit that fear and anxiety are caused by distorted thoughts about a situation or experience. Through repeated exposures, you are able to challenge and modify these thoughts, resulting in a decreased fear response.
The process of exposure therapy typically begins with an assessment of your individual needs and goals, followed by graduated exposures that gradually increase in intensity over time. The therapist will help you identify triggers for the trauma and create an action plan for addressing them. Sessions can be conducted both in-person or online — whichever works best for you.
Looking at Your Personal Exposure Therapy Priorities
Exposure therapy involves creating an “exposure hierarchy”—a specific list of activities that increase in difficulty based on how much anxiety they evoke. The individual is asked to gradually work their way through the list, starting with items that are least anxiety-provoking and working up to those that produce more intense levels of fear.
This process helps desensitize individuals to the memories associated with their trauma and increases their confidence in managing them.
At the same time, the therapist will help the individual develop skills for managing distress and feelings related to the trauma. This may include learning relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, developing problem-solving strategies, identifying emotional triggers, and trying out new coping behaviors.
What Outcomes Can Be Expected from Exposure Therapy?
Research has shown that if you undergo exposure therapy, it can be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. It has been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety disorders (including social anxiety disorder), depression, fear, and avoidance associated with traumatic events.
Additionally, individuals who have participated in PE report improved relationships with their family and friends and greater satisfaction in their daily lives.
What are the Benefits of Exposure Therapy?
The primary benefit of undergoing prolonged exposure therapy is that it enables you to approach the traumatic event from a place of empowerment rather than fear. Over time, this can lead to improved mental health symptoms such as anxiety disorders, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and more.
Along with behavioral therapies such as CBT and particularly DBT, these approaches also provide valuable insights into how you manage and cope with difficult experiences, allowing you to develop more effective strategies for the future.
In addition to emotional healing, exposure therapy can offer physical benefits as well. For example, research has found that it can reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels — two key indicators of stress — in trauma survivors.
Who Can Benefit from Exposure Therapy?
Exposure therapy is an effective treatment for a variety of psychological conditions related to trauma, such as PTSD symptoms, panic disorder, phobias, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s important that you consult with a mental health professional before beginning any type of treatment plan. They will be able to provide an accurate diagnosis, as well as assess your individual needs and goals.
Imaginal Exposure vs Vivo Exposure
When it comes to overcoming your fears and anxieties, two therapies are often used: in vivo exposure and imaginal exposure. Both work effectively to help people manage their emotions and provide lasting relief from trauma and PTSD, but they use different techniques. Here’s a look at how they compare so you can decide which approach might be best for you.
Understanding In Vivo Exposure Therapy
In vivo exposure therapy focuses on facing the thing that makes you feel fearful or anxious directly. For example, if you have an irrational fear of public speaking, in vivo would involve actually giving a speech to an audience; if you’re afraid of flying, it could mean taking a plane ride. The idea is that by confronting the source of your fear, you’ll gradually become less fearful of it.
The Benefits of In Vivo Exposure Therapy
In vivo exposure therapy can be an effective way to manage your anxiety disorders in the long term because it helps you learn how to cope with fear-inducing situations when they arise. This can help reduce stress and make it easier for you to live a more fulfilling life. Additionally, this approach often allows people to get over their fear or phobia relatively quickly compared to other types of therapy.
Understanding Imaginal Exposure Therapy
Imaginal exposure therapy is a bit different than in vivo exposure therapy in that it focuses on confronting irrational fears through visualization rather than direct action. In this type of treatment, people imagine themselves being exposed to the thing they fear and then practice managing their anxiety while they’re in this imagined situation.
The Benefits of Imaginal Exposure Therapy
Imaginal exposure therapy can be beneficial for people who find it difficult or impossible to confront their fears in real life. It allows them to work through their anxieties without having to actually experience the source of their fear. This approach often works quickly, as visualization is a powerful tool for overcoming irrational fears.
Which Approach Is Best?
Ultimately, the best approach will depend on your individual needs and preferences. If you feel that you are able to confront your feared situation directly, then in vivo exposure therapy might be a good option for you. However, if you find yourself unable to face your fear in real life, then imaginal exposure therapy could be a better option. Talk to your therapist at Catalina Behavioral Health to decide which approach might work best for you.
No matter which type of exposure therapy you choose, it’s important to remember that facing your fears and anxieties can be daunting but ultimately rewarding. With the right support and guidance, you can learn how to manage them and live a more fulfilling life.
Finding the Right Team of Therapists to Support You
It’s important to find a therapist who is experienced in providing exposure therapy for trauma. Make sure you ask questions about their credentials and approach to trauma treatment and don’t be afraid to ask for referrals from other professionals or friends if needed. We are happy to provide such references at any time for our acclaimed trauma therapists.
It’s also helpful to look for therapists with experience working with people of similar backgrounds and experiences. This can help create a more comfortable environment where you feel safe enough to discuss sensitive topics and traumatic experiences.
Exposure Therapy at Catalina Behavioral Health
While exposure therapy is challenging, it is even more challenging to live your life with trauma. Our team at Catalina Behavioral Health can help you to recover from your trauma with exposure therapy.
Contact us today to find out more, as well as to get a confidential consultation to find options to overcome trauma with our help and expert support!