What Is Exposure Therapy?

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.

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

Good general texts

  • 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.

Earliest references

  • 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


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