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Exposure Therapy and Phobias

In exposure therapy, also known as systematic desensitization, you are exposed in a safe and controlled way to the object or situation you fear. The most commonly used exposure therapy involves gradual encounters with the fear-producing object, first in the imagination and then in reality.

Facing a fear of dogs

Step 1: Draw a dog on a piece of paper.
Step 2: Read about dogs.
Step 3: Look at photos of dogs.
Step 4: Look at videos of dogs.
Step 5: Look at dogs through a closed window.
Step 6: Look through a partly-opened window.
Step 7: Look at them from a doorway.
Step 8: Move further out from the doorway.
Step 9: Have a helper bring a dog into a nearby room (on a leash).
Step 10: Have the helper bring the dog into the same room, still on a leash.

For example, if you have a dental phobia, you might first sit in the waiting room of a dental office, then talk with the dentist, and then sit in the dentist’s chair. These exposures are combined with relaxation techniques and a therapist or friend at your side to provide support.

Through repeated experiences facing your fear, you begin to realize that the situation, while possibly unpleasant, is not harmful. With each exposure, you feel an increasing sense of control over your phobia. This sense of control over the situation and yourself is the most important benefit of exposure therapy. The phobia begins to lose its power.

Another type of exposure therapy called participant modeling is also helpful. In participant modeling, your therapist models healthy ways of interacting with the object you fear.

In the case of a driving phobia, you would watch while a therapist drives a car in a relaxed state and without fear. Then you would be encouraged to do the same.


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