Breaking Down Exposure Therapy: Treatment for OCD

Exploring the most effective treatment for OCD.

Source: Wonderlane on Unsplash

Exposure therapy is commonly understood as a treatment for OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). OCD is a disorder rooted in obsessions and compulsions. These obsessions can usually form from an anxiety someone has relating to their obsession.

I have experienced OCD for many years. For me, I experience deep anxiety about my animal’s health. Growing up, I had a few animals pass unexpectedly. Due to those times, I was afraid of my animal’s health — I didn’t want them to die.

So I began obsessing about my animal’s health. This led me to worry excessively because I thought that would help prevent an unexpected death in the future.

Whenever my animals are sick or need to go to the doctor, my anxiety is through the roof. I might take some CBD or meditate to help ease my stress during that time.

In a way, that is how exposure therapy can work. But I learned to face my fear through asking questions, learnings and becoming informed. This is just a real-life example of exposure that has worked for me.

This by no means indicates how exposure therapy works. I want to present you with a real-world example of an issue that could be treated by exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy is actually far more detailed. But the idea is still the same. Being exposed to your anxieties can help you overcome that fear. Exposure is the best way to treat anxiety, as it targets the fear directly.

A deeper look into obsessions and compulsions

When we become afraid of something, we avoid it. If we prevent a problem, we are preventing it from ever being a stressor. Exposure therapy works by exposing someone to stimuli or situations that are anxiety-provoking.

Usually, when someone faces their obsessions or anxiety, they will use their compulsions to relieve their stress. For me, my compulsion was to watch my animals and overly check on them. I essentially became a helicopter pet mom worried about them dying in front of me.

Over time, there becomes a reliance on that compulsion to get rid of the negative feelings. There is a strong bond between obsession and compulsion — compulsions are the coping mechanisms that have to be completed in order to relieve the anxiety.

But what makes obsessions with OCD unique is the frequency of these obsessions. I have a panic attack nearly every day, worrying about my animal’s health. Learning to stay away from my compulsions has helped me move away from them. But I am nowhere near free.

Being faced with your phobias and fears challenges your belief about them. It’s terrifying because exposure to the upsetting stimuli, or whatever someone is trying to avoid, will make that person surge with anxiety.

Types of exposure therapy

Like other therapies out there, exposure therapy has different types. Treatment is not a one size fits all deal — everyone is unique.

The standard exposure therapy techniques are:

Graded exposure

Graded exposure is done by easing someone into facing their fear. If a child is afraid of dogs, slowly exposing the child to a dog safely will allow for more to occur each time.

One day the child might see a picture of the dog; the next time, the dog might be at the same park as the child. Slowly, reintroducing the dog or fear back into someone’s life slowly is how graded exposure works.

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization is done by exposing someone to the stimuli that cause anxiety and giving the patient a relaxation tool instead.

Relaxation can commonly be from meditation. Where someone can steady their breathing. Someone is essentially replacing their fear response with a relaxing response.


When someone is completely exposed to the stimuli, causing the maximum amount of stress. This can help someone conquer their fear much quicker but traumatic.

In vivo exposure

Confronting your anxiety and fear in real life. This needs to be done under the guidance of a qualified mental health professional.

Imaginal exposure

This type of exposure is simply imagining stressful stimuli. Instead of facing fears in real life, there is only imagination. This may seem easy, but for some, this could be challenging.

Interoceptive exposure

This type of exposure therapy is aimed at bodily sensations (etc., racing heart) to detach anxiety from that sensation.

Virtual reality exposure

This form of exposure therapy takes a technological approach. Someone can do exposure therapy with the use of virtual reality software.

Overall, exposure therapy really covers a variety of ways. But please remember, exposure therapy needs to be done by a trained mental health professional — an app, VR game, or a rando on the internet is not a substitution for proper treatment.

Success rates

The success rate for exposure therapy is between 60–90% for those who complete treatment. With that in mind, it’s an effective treatment. But unfortunately, not everyone can afford treatment.

Money, work, and life stressors can get in the way of someone seeking treatment. Although it is an effective treatment, it’s not always accessible.

But the treatment itself can only go so far. Someone who goes through exposure therapy will need to give it their all and truly be a part of treatment.

Exposure therapy works if patients are 100% willing to be in treatment.

In the end, treatment is the best option for dealing with a mental illness. OCD is still a disorder that is being learned about. Moving away from the stereotypes of tropes associated with OCD in the media — there is a real disorder with real people.

As originally posted on Medium and NewsBreak