Overcoming Trauma With Exposure Therapy


A woman sits with her fingers against her face trying to cope with trauma and abuse

How exposure therapy can help you face your fears and heal your traumas


Key takeaways:

  • Trauma and abuse can happen to anyone at any time.

  • Common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include nightmares, flashbacks, physiological reactions, insomnia, and aggression.

  • Unresolved trauma can lead to things like OCD and eating disorders.

  • Types of exposure therapy include: in-vivo exposure, imaginal exposure, virtual reality exposure, prolonged exposure, and interoceptive exposure

According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, 70% of adults have experienced some form of trauma in their lives. And, one in 11 people is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in their lifetime. Traumatic events can occur in childhood or adulthood and symptoms can be immediate or delayed.


Exposure therapy, which is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can help treat trauma. It targets the patterns of behavior we use to protect ourselves from experiencing the trauma again. While these behaviors may help us cope, they can become disruptive and prevent us from living our best lives.


Trauma and abuse are more common than people think. From sexual assault and military combat injuries to car accidents and natural disasters, there are many ways trauma can be experienced. We’ll talk about how exposure therapy helps us to confront the cause of our traumas safely and healthily by exposing us to stressors in a controlled environment.


How trauma happens


Trauma can happen to anyone, anytime. It occurs when an event causes physical, emotional, or psychological harm.


We don’t have to experience the event firsthand, either. For example, learning about the death of someone we’re close to can be traumatic and result in PTSD. PTSD can also result from repeated exposure to graphic details of awful events, such as first responders who regularly encounter things like violence and death.


Common causes of trauma


Common causes of trauma include:

  • Child abuse and neglect

  • Domestic violence

  • Military combat

  • Motor vehicle accidents

  • Sexual assault

  • Physical assault and battery

  • Loss of a loved one

  • Personal loss

  • Witnessing violence

  • Surviving a natural disaster

Symptoms of trauma


Symptoms can present in several ways and disrupt our normal activities and day-to-day lives. Many people don’t realize they’re suffering trauma or PTSD until they or someone close to them notices a change in their behaviors. These can include:

  • Flashbacks

  • Nightmares

  • Insomnia

  • Dissociating or isolating

  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  • Avoiding people, places, and/or activities

  • Becoming easily agitated

  • Increased irritability

  • Uncharacteristic aggressiveness

  • Physiological responses such as trembling, recoiling, sweating, or increased heart rate

  • Feeling unsafe


An example of some of these symptoms would be if a survivor of physical assault avoids the place where he was attacked. Or, if while going near that place, he experiences physiological symptoms like heaving breathing, rapid heartbeat, and trembling.


How trauma and PTSD can affect your life


Not only can unresolved trauma have negative effects on us mentally, but it can affect is in our external lives.


We might push away loved ones out of fear of getting hurt or experiencing past traumas all over. Relationships with family, partners and spouses, and children can suffer, which can lead to deeper mental and emotional distress, like depression.


Survivors may turn to unhealthy and even dangerous measures to cope with things like flashbacks and nightmares. They might develop a substance dependency which creates even more problems, which propels the cycle.


After experiencing a traumatic event, we might feel like we have no control over our lives. To try and regain control, we might develop habits that take an additional toll on our physical and mental health.


Some of these things include controlling the amounts of food we eat, obsessive-compulsive behaviors like checking that the doors are locked a specific number of times, drinking too much alcohol, and other self-harm behaviors. These types of behaviors can spiral out of control, adding to the number of things we try to manage daily.


What is exposure therapy?


Exposure therapy is a type of CBT that aims to help change the learned behaviors we adopt to avoid re-experiencing trauma. During exposure therapy, individuals use a type of exposure to confront the situation or event that caused the trauma, so they may overcome the anxiety it has caused.

  • In-vivo exposure therapy In-vivo exposure allows survivors to confront places and/or situations that provoke anxiety in a real-world setting. It’s used to treat people with PTSD, OCD, phobias, and anxiety disorders. An in-vivo exposure session might involve a therapist accompanying a person to the place she was assaulted (as long as it’s safe) to assist her in confronting her fears of the location.

  • Imaginal exposure therapy Imaginal exposure uses guided visualization, wherein a therapist guides a trauma survivor through imagining themselves in places or situations that trigger anxiety. A person might feel safer with imaginal exposure because they don’t have to be in the physical place

  • Virtual reality exposure During virtual reality, exposure relies on immersive technology to place a survivor into an anxiety-provoking situation. It requires a virtual reality headset or room to simulate the place or situation that triggers anxiety. An example of a virtual reality exposure session might be a war veteran wearing a VR headset with a war simulation programmed into it. It would allow the veteran to be back in a warlike situation to work through the feelings that cause the anxiety. This way, they are in a safe, non-war environment but can still experience it.

  • Prolonged exposure This type of exposure therapy incorporates in-vivo and imaginal exposure over a series of therapy sessions to repeatedly expose a survivor to the anxiety-provoking situation. Therapists work with the trauma survivor to determine the appropriate number of sessions.

  • Interoceptive exposure Interoceptive exposure targets the physical sensations of anxiety, like rapid heartbeat and breathing. This therapy involves a survivor engaging in these physical sensations to learn to differentiate them from harmful events, thereby making them less anxiety-provoking.


Seeking help to heal trauma


There are several therapies and methods to treat trauma and finding the right one for you can take time. But, seeking help is the first step to healing. At Love Discovery, we have licensed therapists who are ready to help you take the next step on your journey to healing. We offer individual therapy for trauma and abuse. Schedule an appointment with a therapist today and take your life back.