A recent article in the Kansas City Star features interviews with phobia sufferers who found relief through exposure therapy. The article describes the step-by-step process used by therapists to help clients work through their fears: First, you simply imagine the feared object. Next, you watch videos or look at pictures. Only after lengthy exposure to gradually increasing stimuli do you ever come into direct contact with the object of your fear.
Yet some experts feel that exposure therapy can be dangerous, leading to a worsening of the phobia. Others feel that the chances for success are slim, although the techniques are not necessarily dangerous when performed by trained professionals. So what are phobia sufferers to do? Who should you believe?
My take: The process described in the article is known as systematic desensitization. The idea is that you gradually become comfortable with a mild stimulus, such as a picture of the object you fear. Before you move on to the next step, you should have no fear at all of the mild stimulus. It is like the process of learning to swim. First you wade into the shallow end and someone supports you as you learn to kick. Only once you master a technique do you move on to something more advanced.
By contrast, the exposure technique known as flooding is like learning to swim by jumping into the deep end. In flooding, you are fully exposed to the object of your fear right off the bat. When it works, it is much faster than systematic desensitization. But there is a lot more potential for error.
I think that either type of exposure therapy can work in the right setting, with the right mental health professional, with the right client. But I also believe that either can be misapplied. Of the two, I generally favor systematic desensitization, as it allows both client and therapist more control over the process. However, that is merely my personal preference.
What do you think? Have you undergone either type of exposure therapy? Did it work? Do you think one type is better than the other? As always, your thoughts are welcome!