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What Is Exposure Therapy?

Exposure is an effective evidence-based treatment for fear. This information handout describes the key principles of Exposure Therapy. Clients who are nervous about attempting exposure will find it helpful to understand the theory behind the approach.

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Professional version

A PDF of the resource, theoretical background, suggested therapist questions and prompts.

Client version

A PDF of the resource plus client-friendly instructions where appropriate.

Editable version (PPT)

An editable Microsoft PowerPoint version of the resource.

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Languages this resource is available in

  • Chinese (Simplified)
  • English (GB)
  • English (US)
  • French
  • Greek
  • Italian
  • Romanian
  • Spanish (International)

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Introduction & Theoretical Background

Exposure as a therapy procedure is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety. What Is Exposure Therapy? is an information sheet describing the purpose and mechanism of exposure therapy. It includes a simple clinical example to help patients understand how fears come about and how exposure can be used to treat fear. This information sheet uses a memory 'retrieval competition' (Brewin, 2006) account to explain exposure – this is consistent with other accounts (including classical conditioning explanations) but does not require knowledge of learning theory.

Therapist Guidance

This is a Psychology Tools information handout. Suggested uses include:
  • Client handout - use as a psychoeducation resource
  • Discussion point - use to provoke a discussion and explore client beliefs
  • Therapist learning tool - improve your familiarity with a psychological construct
  • Teaching resource - use as a learning tool during training

References And Further Reading

  • Abramowitz, J. S., Deacon, B. J., Whiteside, S. P. H. (2011). Exposure therapy for anxiety: principles and practice. New York, Guilford.
  • Brewin, C. R. (2006). Understanding cognitive behaviour therapy: A retrieval competition account. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(6), 765-784.
  • Weidech & Witten (eds). (2012). Exposure therapy: rethinking the model - refining the method.
  • James G. Taylor (1897-1973) is credited with some of the earliest use of exposure therapy in the 1950's, but apparently published little of his work
  • Salter (1949) originally described systematic desensitization
  • Wolpe (1958) describes systematic desensitization in more detail