Most people naturally avoid things they fear. But that avoidance behavior actually serves to reinforce fears.
Exposure therapy is a treatment that helps patients face their anxieties through exercises that expose them — very gradually — to situations or objects that stir up bad feelings.
With gradual exposure training, patients confront their fears in a measured way, using systematic desensitization that creates a hierarchy of feared scenarios.
The patient is first exposed to their least frightening scenario. Once the patient is able to control his or her fear reaction in the least-scary scenario, they can move on to the next most frightening experience.
This continues until the most frightening experiences are adapted to.
For instance, if a patient fears swimming, a gradual exposure approach would first involve dipping a toe in the pool, and then a whole foot.
As that person becomes more comfortable being in the water, he or she can get closer and closer to overcoming the fear of swimming.
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