Who could benefit from exposure therapy?

Posted 3 months ago by David McManus
People may be led to believe that avoiding parts of life commonly associated with trauma is the only way to manage the emotional impact it takes. [Source: Shutterstock]
People may be led to believe that avoiding parts of life commonly associated with trauma is the only way to manage the emotional impact it takes. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Exposure therapy could benefit people who live with an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia and generalised anxiety disorder
  • People could be scared by the idea of exposure therapy — confronting a source of anxiety head-on and building up the confidence to overcome it
  • One-in-13 people were found to have a phobia — an irrational fear


This edition of Disability Support Guide intended to highlight the therapeutic benefits some people have found through the process of exposure therapy. Readers will learn about who exposure therapy is for, along with the process itself and where to find support throughout the article.

Exposure therapy has been used during cognitive behavioural therapy sessions to treat an aversion to sources of fear. People might develop phobias through isolation, depression, trauma or childhood development, with research confirming there are also neurobiological reasons for developing specific fears.

Exposure therapy might involve directly interacting with the associated source of fear in real life, in virtual reality or through vividly imagining the specific phobia. Once a therapist and client/patient have established the source of fear, the severity of fear and the goals for recovery, sessions will be graded on a scale. Graded therapy sessions are used to determine whether progress is being made along with whether the person is willing to confront their fear in a more intimate way for the next therapy intervention.

Exposure therapy sessions have been proven to work as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, phobias and eating disorders through frequent and prolonged periods of dedicated treatment. The frequency of treatments is intended to prevent people from redeveloping their phobia between intermittent sessions and the length of treatment is planned to familiarise a person with a setting until their fear has subsided.

Anxiety disorders, such as phobias, have cost the Australian economy over $5 billion each year in treatment expenses and productivity loss. 

Research found that exposure therapy was the gold standard for the treatment of PTSD, along with a front-line treatment for OCD. A 2020 review found exposure therapy to be an effective treatment in up to 91 percent of children with an anxiety disorder.


Fear versus phobia

Exposure therapy is well-known as an evidence-based treatment for people living with phobia — an irrational fear — with an 80 to 90 percent success rate for reduced symptoms. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition cited that a phobia is distinct from a fear, as: “[…]  the response must differ from normal, transient fears that commonly occur in the population.”

To meet the criteria for a diagnosis, according to the DSM-5, the fear or anxiety must be intense or severe and the amount of fear experienced may vary with proximity to the feared object or situation. The fear or anxiety may take the form of a full or limited symptom panic attack and is evoked nearly every time the individual comes into contact with the phobic stimulus — meaning that a fear of one flight does not constitute a ‘phobia of flight.’

Anxiety Treatment Australia is available by phone via 0429 883 671 or online, for national access to a clinical psychologist with experience providing exposure therapy in person or via telehealth appointment.

It might be wise to speak to one’s local doctor or current mental health specialist for referral or to determine if exposure therapy is suited to a person’s needs.

Have you tried exposure therapy? What were the results like? Let us know!

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