How to Do Exposure Therapy on Yourself

Many people seeking self-improvement may not have the financial resources to pay a therapist. That’s why knowing how to do exposure therapy on themselves is a great life skill that just might come in handy! Hey, friend, it's okay to hold your own hand!

It's normal to want to avoid the things you fear, however, staying in your comfort zone prevents growth and can often make the feared situation appear even bigger. In fact, the more you avoid something, the more difficult it becomes to face it. This is where exposure therapy comes in, also known as systematic desensitization.

“The clinical idea of exposure was developed by Wolpe during the 1950s. Exposure is a reconditioning process of facing fears to lessen their effect. It can be done on your own (recommended) or with a therapist who repeatedly introduces you to feared situations.”

What is Exposure?

The steps are gradual and movement to more “exposure” is done gently until you feel less anxious. Exposure done right should not make the fear worse. You should start off the buddying up to the feared situation as small as possible. Say, for instance, a person is fearful of spiders. Instead of bringing them to a pet shop filled with them, a therapist or the person himself may buy a tiny rubber spider.

After a while of having the synthetic spider, they will move on to taking it out of the box packaging. Then sitting close to it. Then poking it, then holding it, etc. They will gradually move on to bigger and bigger things with this spider (putting it on their back, sleeping with it) until they are able to be around real ones without crippling fear. Over time heir anxiety will naturally lessen and some people have moved on to being friends with animals they once had nightmares about or enjoying situations they detested, like being alone at the mall.

Why Is Exposure Important?

Fears can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety. It can even hold people back in circumstances, like driving a car, having a job, or even being intimate with others. Fears can isolate you and keep you stagnant while you watch your peers moving ahead. In such instances, fears can cause depression. With exposure, you start with situations that are less scary, then work your way up to facing things that cause you a great deal of anxiety. You learn to work through the fear, embrace the anxiety.

Over time, as you learn that anxiety in small doses won’t harm you, you can build up the confidence to take even bigger steps into situations that frighten you. You can start living life doing the things you need to do. You may even come to enjoy some activities that caused a lot of anxiety at first. This process happens all the time such as when people learn to ride a bike, skate, or drive a car. Exposure is one of the most effective ways of overcoming fears. However, it takes some planning and patience. But here at OK, Level Up, we have a task for you to start overcoming your fears today!

Activity: Try Exposure for Yourself!

Step 1) Make a list

Make a list of situations, places or things that you fear. Include lots of situations, some that are easy to face and some that are hard. Remember you are not alone, here is a list of common fears:
  • Being around other people

  • Trying new things

  • Getting on bus

  • Driving

  • Getting naked

  • Holding hands

  • Talking to unfamiliar people

  • Public speaking

  • Animals

  • Insects

  • Needles

  • Heights

  • Germs

  • Driving

  • Crowded places

Step 2) Create a Fear Ladder

Select one fear to start with. Rank situations involving it from 0-100. 0 being little to no fear, and 100 being extreme fear. Identify your goal with the fear. Typically the goal is to start of small and have the situation at the top of the ladder with the extreme amount of fear.

Step 3) Be Realistic

It is important to note the underlying issues of a fear. Someone could have a fear of bees for instance because they are allergic. This case they might not want to introduce themselves to actual bees but rather learn to be outside with comfort and medical aid in case of a sting. Someone with agoraphobia may need to take a walking GPS and have their cell phones charged at all times. Be realistic and do not put yourself in danger or under severe stress.

A common fear is a fear of socializing. Look at its roots. Maybe, for instance, you have a social phobia because you have poor social skills. Perhaps instead of putting, “try to make new friends at the gym” in the ladder, try instead, “Go to a social skills class and interact with the other students.” Or, if you have no access to a social class, put “Try to find friends online that will understand me.” Be realistic about your goals on the ladder, do not push yourself too hard or it will just cause more withdrawal.

Hypothetical Case Study:

Veronica has a crippling fear of talking to new people. She has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism and is used to being picked on and left out by her peers. She understands that she lacks social skills, not by her own fault or lack of trying, but she will always be unique. She wants to find other people like her that won’t judge her. What she now fears is the embarrassment and anxiety that may come along with talking to new people on her quest to find non-judgmental friends. She doesn’t care so much for rude people, she just wishes she wasn’t so sensitive. Her goal is to be able to accept and thrive even under the face of social rejection. So she creates a fear ladder.

People acting rude or repulsed by her presence -100

Trying to talk to someone who is clearly ignoring her – 90

Talking to Someone – 80

Going to a social skills class – 70

Being around strangers – 65

Leaving House – 50

Talking to people online -20

Calling a distress center – 10

Learning about accepting rejection with grace- 0

It is important to note that Veronica may start to climb the fear hierarchy smoothly and quickly only to be triggered by a rung in the middle. She can simply move down a rung or two in that case until she is ready to ease her way back up. She may even go back down to rung one. Studies have shown that the longer you take to move up the ladder, the better the results. So don’t rush the process. Really come to grips and flourish on the first step before you move to the other.Really take your list seriously. It is crucial as it provides structure for the exposure.



1. Be patient with yourself. Don’t compare yourself to anyone. The time required to get all the way up the ladder depends on the severity of the phobia.

2. Exposure can be done in two ways:· In vitrothe person imagines exposure to the phobic stimulus.· In vivothe person is actually exposed to the phobic stimulus. Research has found that in vivo techniques are more successful than in vitro (Menzies & Clarke, 1993).

3. You can couple the exposure with relaxation techniques to improve results: Ex: Veronica may imagine a person laughing at her while listening to soft music, breathing deeply, or meditating.

4. Expect to feel anxious.

5. Plan your exposure exercise in advance. Identify what you are going to do and when you’re going to do it.

6. Spend as much time as you can on one activity – anxiety takes a lot of energy and at some point, it will “run out of gas” and you’ll realize you’re safe. This can take a long time (up to 30 minutes or more).

7. Once you achieve an activity with little or no anxiety, celebrate your victory, treat yourself, and move on to the next thing on your list.

Step 4) Practice, Practice, Practice!

Finally, If you really want to reap the benefits of exposure therapy, it is important to practice on a regular basis. Some steps can be practiced daily, while others can only be done once in a while. However, the more often you practice the faster the fear will fade. Don’t forget to maintain the gains that you have made. Even if you have become comfortable doing something, it’s important to keep exposing yourself to it from time to time. And finally, re-rate your fear ladder every once in a while.

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