CBT and Exposure Therapy for Anxiety

When we’re anxious about something, it’s natural to want to avoid it. But avoidance is only a short term solution. Eventually we to need to face our fears. And the longer we’ve been putting something off due to anxiety, the more anxiety we’ll feel when we have to do it. Or we may be able to avoid something that’s causing us anxiety altogether this time. But then the next time we’re in a similar situation, it’s going to cause us even more anxiety.

In CBT, exposure therapy is an important B-for-behavioral technique to combat avoidance behaviors and reduce anxiety. Exposure therapy involves exposing ourselves to whatever is making us anxious, rather than avoiding it. And as we start to expose ourselves to the source of our anxiety—in other words, when we do things that cause us anxiety—we learn that these things aren’t as threatening or dangerous as we fear. Our predictions about the negative consequences that we expect are going to happen usually don’t occur or aren’t as bad as we feared. And even if we do experience uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety we’re able to tolerate it. And as a result the situations begin to provoke less anxiety.

Exposure Therapy for Anxiety

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube and edited with ChatGPT

Exposure therapy is a type of behavior therapy that’s an important component in treating many types of anxiety as well as PTSD.

When we fear something or something causes us anxiety, our natural inclination is to want to avoid it. And avoidance can provide some short-term relief. As long as we can avoid whatever we’re afraid of, there’s nothing to feel anxious about. But in the long term, avoidance only increases our fear and anxiety because each time we avoid something that we’re anxious about, we’re reinforcing the idea that this thing is scary and dangerous. So we begin to fear it even more, and it causes us even more anxiety.

Avoiding things we’re anxious about deprives us of the opportunity to have new experiences and new learning that teach us that these things aren’t as threatening or dangerous as we fear. And that even if we do have some anxiety while we’re in these situations, it’s okay to have some anxiety. It’s uncomfortable, but anxiety itself isn’t dangerous, and we’ll get through it. We don’t need to avoid things just because we’re going to feel anxious while we’re in those situations.

Now the opposite of avoidance is exposure. Instead of avoiding the things that make us anxious, we expose ourselves to them. Put ourselves in those situations, and as we do this, they start to cause us less fear and anxiety.

There are a couple of ways of doing exposure therapy that we’re going to look at in this video. The traditional method involves what’s known as graded or graduated exposure. We make a list of about eight to ten situations related to what we fear or are anxious about, and then rank them into a fear hierarchy or ladder based on how much fear, anxiety, or distress they each cause us. Then we gradually expose ourselves to our fears by starting with a situation that causes us the least amount of anxiety and working our way up the list.

Now most of you watching this video aren’t going to set up experimental exposures to practice putting yourselves in situations that cause fear and anxiety. But these situations arise naturally in our lives, and we can still apply the things we’ll learn in this video, especially with regards to the second type of exposure therapy we’ll be talking about to everyday situations to help decrease the amount of fear and anxiety they cause us over time.

So each exposure exercise involves putting ourselves in one of the situations from our exposure list and then staying in that situation until our fear begins to subside and we experience some level of reduction in anxiety. And we repeat each exposure situation until it no longer causes us significant fear or anxiety, and then we move on to the next item in the list.

This is known as habituation-based exposure, and habituation is the process through which we experience a decrease in our fear or anxiety responses as a result of repeated exposure to a situation or stimulus. As we become less sensitive to it, we get used to it.

And there are three types of exposure. In Vivo, we simply put ourselves in real-life situations that cause us fear or anxiety. If we have a fear of dogs, we put ourselves in a situation where there is a dog.

Now, with imaginal exposure, we don’t actually put ourselves in a situation. We imagine the situation. This is common in treating PTSD. Imaginal exposure helps us process traumatic experiences in a safe and controlled environment, revisiting the traumatic event in our minds and imagining it in detail. This helps us gradually reduce the distress and anxiety associated with traumatic memories.

Interceptive exposure involves exposing ourselves to physical sensations in our bodies that cause us fear and anxiety. Usually, these are sensations that lead us to start panicking. So we might do some exercise that increases our heart rates and leaves us short of breath to help us learn the symptoms we have when we’re feeling anxious, like a racing heart or shortness of breath. This teaches us that these symptoms don’t necessarily mean we’re having a heart attack. Or we might spin around until we’re feeling dizzy to teach us that feelings of dizziness don’t mean that we’re having a stroke or about to pass out.

But if you’re not sure that your physical symptoms are the result of anxiety and are concerned there may be an underlying medical condition, then please consult a medical professional before trying interceptive exposure.

Recent research suggests that habituation isn’t the most effective or reliable way to reduce anxiety through exposure, and there’s been a shift towards what’s known as inhibitory learning-based exposure. Inhibitory learning involves new learning that takes place during the exposure that inhibits or suppresses our previously learned fear or anxiety response in that situation. Our goal isn’t to experience a reduction in anxiety during the exposure, although that may happen. Instead, there are two main things we want to accomplish: we want to violate our expectations about what we fear is going to happen, which leads to new inhibitory learning that inhibits or suppresses our previously learned fear and anxiety responses to these situations that stem from our beliefs that these situations are threatening or dangerous. And we want to learn that we can still do things even if they cause us some fear or anxiety.

We can apply this inhibitory learning-based approach to fear and anxiety-provoking situations that arise naturally in our lives to help learn new ways of thinking about these situations that lead to a reduction in our fear and anxiety responses. So keep that in mind as we look at the formal process of inhibitory learning-based exposure therapy.

So let’s look at how this works in practice using social anxiety as an example. First, we come up with a list of exposure exercises related to our social anxiety. With traditional exposure therapy, we would rank these situations based on how much distress they cause us and then start from the one that causes us the least amount of distress and then work our way up the list in order. But now it seems to be more effective if we go through the list in a quasi-random order.

We can still start with the situation that causes us the least amount of anxiety if that makes it easier for us to get started, or we can prioritize situations that seem most important or relevant to us. So, if we’ve been criticized at work for not speaking up enough at meetings, we might prioritize doing an exposure exercise related to this, even though it may cause us a great deal of anxiety compared to some of the other items on our list, like talking to a cashier, which may not seem like a particularly valuable situation for us to prioritize.

So now, let’s go through some examples of inhibitory learning based exposure for social anxiety, and you can download a copy of an exposure therapy worksheet that guides you through this process from the link in the description. Let’s say our anxiety prevents us from attending a lot of social events that we’d like to go to because we’re just too uncomfortable being around people we don’t know, and we decide that talking to someone we don’t know in a social setting would be a useful exposure exercise to prioritize, even though the thought of it causes us a lot of anxiety.

So first, we need to set a specific and measurable goal for the exposure, not just something like, “next time I’m at a social event, I’m going to try to talk to people I don’t know,” but something like, “at Mia’s party this weekend, I’m going to talk to two people I don’t know for at least five minutes each.” We want to make sure that the goal is something we expect is going to be challenging because we want to give ourselves a chance to violate our expectations about what’s going to happen as much as possible because that’s going to lead to the greatest amount of learning.

So, something like, “I’m going to say hi to someone I don’t know, and then if I’m feeling uncomfortable, I can excuse myself to go to the restroom,” isn’t going to be that productive. First, because we don’t expect that anything that bad is going to happen, so there’s not that much opportunity for inhibitory learning to take place. Second, we’re getting out of the situation as soon as we start to feel uncomfortable, so we’re depriving ourselves of the opportunity to learn that it’s okay to have some anxiety in these situations, that we can tolerate this anxiety, and it’s not something we need to avoid.

Then we predict what’s going to happen and write down our expectations and the feared outcome or outcomes we’re most worried about, and the feelings and emotions we’re worried that we won’t be able to tolerate. “I’m going to feel so anxious it’s going to be difficult for me to speak properly,” “My anxiety will be so bad I’ll start having a panic attack,” “I’m not going to have anything to talk about, and the other person is going to get so bored they’ll make an excuse to get away from me before the five minutes are up.” Then we rate on a scale from zero to a hundred how much we expect that these outcomes will actually happen.

Then we do the exposure, and afterwards, we compare our expectations of what we thought was going to happen with what actually happened. The first conversation went on for a couple of minutes, and then someone they knew joined us, and I felt a little awkward and didn’t have much to say after that, but they didn’t abandon me or seem to mind that I was still there. The second person I talked to turned out to have some friends in common with me, and so we talked about them for a while, and after some initial anxiety, I felt pretty comfortable once we started talking.

And were we able to tolerate the distress? I felt anxious but not so anxious that it was hard to speak. I did feel pretty anxious a couple of times but never close to panicking.

And how was this outcome different from what we expected? I felt anxious but not as anxious as I thought I would, and my anxiety never made it difficult for me to get my words out. Once we started talking, the other person was really friendly and easier to talk to than I feared.

And what did we learn from this experience? Even when anxious, I’m able to carry on a conversation with someone I don’t know, and once we start talking, I start to feel more comfortable. I didn’t really need anything that interesting to talk about; we just talked about random stuff, and it was fine. So through this exposure, we’ve experienced quite a bit of discrepancy between the bad things we feared and expected were going to happen and what actually occurred. This learning will help inhibit our fear and anxiety responses in similar situations in the future. We can apply this process to situations that arise naturally in our lives: look at what we expected was going to happen in a situation we were having some fear or anxiety about and how that was different from what actually happened, and then ask ourselves what we can learn from this result that can help reduce our fear and anxiety in similar situations in the future.

And here’s an example from an article I’ll link to in the description that has examples and case studies of how to use exposure therapy to treat a wide range of issues, and also covers everything we talk about in this video in much more detail. I like this example because it demonstrates the type of exposure exercise that might not occur to us on our own to help test the hypothesis that the emotions we’d experience in certain types of situations would be intolerable and therefore need to be avoided at all costs. In this case, the emotion being embarrassment or humiliation in public. So the goal of the exposure is to ride the elevator at the local mall for 30 minutes, calling out the number of each floor in a loud voice.

What are we worried will happen? People will look at me angrily and ask, “What’s wrong with you?” I’ll feel so humiliated and embarrassed I’ll start crying and have to run out of the elevator.

And then we do the exposure, and afterwards we look at what actually happened. When I called out the floor numbers, some people looked over at me with a confused look on their face, but nobody seemed angry, and most people just kept their heads down and ignored me. I did feel really embarrassed and humiliated, but not to the point of crying, and I was able to stay in the elevator the whole time.

How is this different than what I’d expected? Well, people seem more confused than angry, and nobody said anything to me, and most people just ignored me altogether. And even though it was really humiliating to embarrass myself like that, and I did feel really uncomfortable, I was able to tolerate these feelings and stay in the elevator until the end of the exercise.

And what did I learn as a result of this exposure? Even if I do something really embarrassing in public and humiliate myself, it’s not the end of the world. And this exercise seems way more embarrassing and humiliating than anything that would actually happen in real life. So if I can get through this, I can get through whatever embarrassment or humiliation I may experience in the course of any sort of typical real-life situation.

So as a result of this exposure exercise, we’ve experienced new learning about the effects of feeling embarrassed or humiliated in public, which has taught us that these experiences are actually tolerable. So in the future, if we find ourselves in situations in which we fear we may be embarrassed or humiliated, or if we do in fact embarrass or humiliate ourselves, this new learning will help inhibit or suppress our previously learned fear or anxiety responses regarding these types of situations or these emotional responses.

Exposure is an important component in treating many types of anxiety, as well as PTSD, because it gives us the opportunity to learn that the bad things that we fear or expect or predict are going to happen in certain situations usually don’t actually happen or aren’t as bad as we’d worried they’d be, which helps inhibit and suppress our fear and anxiety responses in these situations. And we learn that we can still do things even if they cause us some fear or anxiety, and so we don’t need to avoid things, especially things that are important to us, just because they provoke fear or anxiety.

Here’s a great article that goes in to a lot more derail about inhibitory learning based exposure along with a number of case studies, and you can download the Exposure Therapy Worksheet in PDF or Word format. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.

Abramowitz, J. S., Deacon, B. J., & Whiteside, S. P. H. (2019). Exposure therapy for anxiety: Principles and practice (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Craske, M. G., Kircanski, K., Zelikowsky, M., Mystkowski, J., Chowdhury, N., & Baker, A. (2008). Optimizing inhibitory learning during exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(1), 5–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2007.10.003

Craske, M. G., Treanor, M., Conway, C. C., Zbozinek, T., & Vervliet, B. (2014). Maximizing exposure therapy: An inhibitory learning approach. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 58, 10–23. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2014.04.006