Exposure Therapy Reduces the Severity of Phobias and Anxiety

May 12, 2019 George Abitante

Exposure therapy can reduce the severity of phobias and anxiety. Learn more about exposure therapy and what you can do to implement it to reduce your anxiety.

How We Learn Our Phobias

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how people suffering from anxiety learn. For topics that aren't anxiety-inducing, learning seems to operate similarly to everyone else (though with some caveats -- a topic for another day). However, for anxiety-provoking situations, it can be really difficult to realize that there isn't actually anything to be afraid of. Although this is frustrating, this has been a central adaptation for humanity throughout much of history. Remembering threats in the environment was extremely adaptive for early humans, allowing us to avoid specific threats and areas that we previously found them in. However, in the modern age, this adaptive trait can throw us for a loop. 

The threats we encounter in our daily lives are not the same types of threats our ancestors experienced. Many challenges are not short-lived and context-specific, but instead can arise from an array of situations and contexts, and often occur over a long time period. This can make it exceptionally difficult to disrupt anxiety even when it pertains to a specific cause. For example, for individuals who had a frightening experience with dogs, it can be difficult to recover from that fear because dogs are everywhere in our environment. Even though they are rarely dangerous, it can be difficult to learn this after having a bad experience in the past. Although this lack of fear extinction has largely been adaptive, since it meant early humans wouldn't forget the source of a traumatic experience, in our daily lives this can mean we maintain fears that are not actually generalizable. 

Dealing with Phobias Using Exposure Therapy

Phobias often feel insurmountable because there are so many ways they can be maintained, but exposure therapy offers an effective solution. I recently read an excellent article on exposure therapy that I thought provided great context for understanding anxiety and methods for addressing it. Exposure therapy is the process by which specific anxieties are overcome through a gradual progression of exposures to the feared stimulus, with the help of a therapist. Today I want to share with you some steps of exposure therapy that may provide a useful context in your lives. 

  1. Develop an exposure hierarchy. This step is crucial for conducting exposure therapy because it provides a clear sequence of situations to tackle. You create a scale from 0 to 100 with each increment indicating a different degree of anxiety regarding the feared stimulus. For example, if my fear is of dogs, then a 10 on my hierarchy might be "looking at a picture of a cute dog", and a 70 might be "going up to a dog and petting it briefly." By gradually working through these steps, anxiety can be reduced over time. 
  2. Conduct exposures. After the exposure hierarchy is established, you can then begin exposures at the lowest levels of the hierarchy. With the help of a therapist, these exposures allow you to become comfortable with the feared stimulus at that level and allow you to progress to the next. 
  3. Eliminate safety behaviors. Safety behaviors are actions we take that make us feel better during stressful events but ultimately hold us back from overcoming our anxiety. For example, believing that you are only safe near dogs if you have a friend with you perpetuates your anxiety, even though it feels like that makes it better. Eventually, we have to recognize that all we need to be safe in our own bodies and minds. 

I hope this post has provided you with some information about exposure therapy and its potential benefits for your phobias and anxiety. Please comment below with other techniques you've found helpful.


  1. Kaplan, Johanna, PhD, Tolin, David, PhD, "Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders." Psychiatric Times, September 6, 2011. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, May 12). Exposure Therapy Reduces the Severity of Phobias and Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 22 from

Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

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