Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a type of psychotherapy designed to treat anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder. The basic principle is exposure, in graduated steps, to situations one has been avoiding due to fear. Closely related is response prevention, in which one stops oneself from carrying out compulsive behaviors.

To illustrate response prevention, consider a hypothetical patient who cannot leave his office until he checks three lights, the water faucet, desk lock, and door lock ten times each before he can leave the office, at a cost of thirty minutes. I start the intervention by asking him to pick the easiest place to start. If he chooses the overhead light switch, then I instruct him to check it only nine times for one week. We meet weekly and go from there. The steps are small at first, but momentum builds.

If you work with a psychotherapist or coach, he or she will guide and encourage you. It can be very useful to have one’s progress witnessed and reinforced by a clinician, but one can also implement these simple-minded methods in a self-guided way. Start with the least challenging situation and work up to the harder ones. Keep the steps small and build on small successes.