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Exposure Therapy

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

Researcher & Writer: Angel MAO

Illustrator: Mia YUNG

What is Exposure Therapy?

During the pandemic, anxiety disorders have been steadily rising due to isolations. Some are trying exposure therapy to fight their anxieties. Exposure Therapy is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy to confront anxiety, phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD). Usually, people avoid something that they are scared of. With exposure therapy, the doctor makes the patient face their fear so they learn that it’s safe.

Classical Conditioning

To understand exposure therapy, we first have to understand classical conditioning. Discovered by Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning is an automatic learning process in which our brains link an event to something. For example, a person could link needles to pain because they’ve taken injections.

There are three types of stimulus: unconditioned stimulus, which triggers an automatic response (eg. When your mouth waters because you smelled a particular food); neutral stimulus, a stimulus that doesn’t trigger a response initially; conditioned stimulus, a neutral stimulus that is conditioned to trigger a response. These stimuli result in responses including unconditioned response (caused by unconditioned stimulus) and conditioned response (result of conditioned stimulus).

Phases of conditioning (in reference to Ivan Pavlov’s Salivating Dog Experiment)

  1. First, there is a naturally occurring unconditioned stimulus(UCS) causing an unconditioned response(UCR). In this case, it would be the dog salivating when it smells food. A neutral stimulus is also included, which is a bell.

  2. During conditioning, the bell ringing is repeatedly linked to the scent of food. The dog’s brain associates the neutral stimulus(bell) to an unconditioned response(UCR)

  3. After conditioning, the dog would salivate when it hears the ringing of a bell. This is a conditioned response(CR)

How Does it Work?

Classical conditioning is how our brain could be made to associate one thing with another. Most fears, although some are developed since birth, are developed through classical conditioning. The Little Albert Experiment was one example, in which a baby was conditioned to be afraid of white things. Through exposure therapy, the patient could be conditioned so that they are not afraid of a certain event or object anymore.

There are variations of exposure therapy, including in vivo exposure, imaginal exposure and even virtual reality exposure. In vivo exposure directly leaves the patient to their fear in real life, while imaginal exposure allows the person to imagine, recall or describe their fear. Virtual reality technology could also be used in some cases to simulate an event.

Psychologists take different paces in approaching the therapy, allowing the patient’s tolerance to increase. An exposure fear hierarchy is constructed and the patient could either start from milder levels and slowly advance, or they may be flooded directly with the most difficult tasks. Systematic desensitisation could also be used in some cases, combining exposure with relaxation exercises.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). What is exposure therapy? American Psychological Association. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from

Cherry, K. (n.d.). How classical conditioning works, with examples. Verywell Mind. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from

Mcleod], [S. (1970, January 1). [classical conditioning: How it works with examples]. Simply Psychology. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from

Hughes, V., & Rios, D. (2022, November 21). With anxiety on the rise, some children try 'exposure therapy'. The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2022, from

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