How does 'exposure' work in CBT for anxiety?
If you feel anxious about something, the most understandable reaction is to avoid it. If you're scared of heights, you will avoid tall buildings; if it's spiders, rooms that look cobwebby will be a no-no; if you're scared of dogs, you may avoid parks, and so on. The problem is that, although this is understandable, it's not helpful. Every time you avoid, you are giving yourself the message that the 'phobic object' (a high place, spider or dog) is a scary, dangerous thing to be avoided at all costs. In fact, it's only because you avoided that you didn't fall off the edge or get bitten.
So if you see a cognitive therapist like me for help with a phobia, a central plank of the treatment is 'exposure' – doing the thing you are scared of, even though it's scary. This may just seem mean, but in fact it's extremely effective and is backed up by decades of research. We know that every time you do something scary, your brain gets more and more used to the scary thing, learning that it's not in fact dangerous and nothing bad really happens. This is called 'habituation'.
If you are phobic of spiders, as well as working on your anxiety-provoking thoughts about arachnids, I will get you to look at pictures of spiders in magazines or on the internet. We will work up to having a spider in a glass jar in the room, then you holding the jar and, ultimately, touching or holding the spider. And if you go through this exposure process, your phobia will be completely cured – something that may have completely blighted your life will be gone forever.
The only way out is through
That's why, even though it can be tough, it's so important to use some form of exposure in a CBT treatment of any anxiety 'disorder' (what psychologists call the different kinds of anxiety-related problem people commonly experience). This applies to panic disorder, agoraphobia, health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
As I often tell my clients, when you're treating anxiety the only way out is through. So if you're scared of the Tube, you have to end up taking the Tube. If it's pigeons, we'll need to look at lots of pictures of birds and maybe send you to Trafalgar Square. With OCD, you will need to actively imagine – and probably do – the things you try so hard to avoid thinking about and doing. With PTSD, you will need to run through the traumatic experience again as an imagery exercise with me, and visit the place where the trauma happened.
Exposure really works
As I also tell my clients, if I had a magic pill that would solve their problem, I would give it to them in an instant. But until that day, exposure is the closest thing we have to a magic cure, because I have seen it work miracles with people – if you stick at it, this treatment can literally change your life. And I will be with you every step of the way, encouraging, supporting, explaining the science behind it and problem-solving any difficulties you may encounter.
So if you or someone you care about has problems with anxiety, I strongly recommend you give CBT, and exposure, a try – remember that CBT is the only talking therapy recommended by the NHS for all anxiety disorders. That's because it works, while I'm afraid most other forms of counselling or therapy – while they might help with bereavement, say, or depression – really don't help with anxiety disorders.