What Is Exposure Therapy?

How Exposure Therapy Works

The Modality Manual / Exposure Therapy

The Science Behind Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioural therapy that is used to treat anxiety disorders. like phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The basic idea behind exposure therapy is that by gradually exposing a person to the things or situations that trigger their anxiety, they can learn to overcome their fears. Symptoms ease, and mental health wins.

Exposure therapy is based on the principles of classical conditioning (you know, Pavlov’s dog and the bell style) and habituation.

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Someone swirls a golden sparkler through the air at long exposure

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is when a person learns to associate a neutral stimulus with a fear response e.g., the sound of a dentist drill with the fear of pain.

Habituation

Habituation is when a person becomes ~desensitised~ to a stimulus through repeated exposure. For example, getting used to the sound of the dentist drill after a number of successful dentist visits as you kept your pearly whites clean.

Exposure therapy uses these principles to help a person overcome their fears and anxiety. Basically, your therapist gradually exposes you to the things or situations that trigger anxiety, starting with the least anxiety-provoking and slowly moving to more challenging scenarios.

A shadowy figure in a room full of long exposure red light

Exposure Therapy In Action

Let’s tie this together with an example: if you’re someone who has a fear of flying, your therapist might start by showing you pictures of airplanes. They then move to watching videos of take-offs and landings, perhaps then visiting an airport, or experiencing a flight using virtual reality, and eventually work up to taking a short flight.

The Effectiveness Of Exposure Therapy

What the research tells us is that through exposure, we can learn to rewire our brains response to flying. Or, basically, any other anxiety-provoking stimuli, for that matter. This leads to a reduction in anxiety and overall improvement to your quality of life – sounds rad, right?

With the help of one of our skilled therapists, exposure therapy can be a powerful tool for overcoming anxiety. It can help you get back to living life in a way that is meaningful to you.

A long exposure of multiple colours

Types of Exposure Therapy

Here’s a run down of the most popular types of exposures:

Imaginal exposure:

This involves imagining a situation or scenario that causes anxiety, and then describing it in detail. E.g., someone with PTSD may be asked to imagine the traumatic event while being guided by the therapist in a relaxed state.

In vivo exposure:

This involves facing the fear in real life. E.g., someone with a fear of dogs may gradually expose themselves to pictures of dogs and working their way up to interacting with a friendly dog.

Virtual reality exposure:

This involves using VR technology to create a simulated environment that mimics the anxiety-provoking situation. E.g., someone with a fear of heights may be immersed in a simulation of being at the top of a tall building.

Interoceptive exposure therapy:

This involves intentionally inducing physical sensations that are associated with anxiety. E.g., someone with a fear of panic attacks may be asked to engage in physical activities, such as rapid breathing or spinning in a chair, to simulate the physical sensations of a panic attack.

The type of exposure used will depend on you and your specific goals. Your therapist will develop a customised treatment plan tailored to your needs.

A girl in a cloak stands outside a building at night

Is Exposure Therapy for me?

Prolonged exposure therapy can benefit anyone who experiences anxiety or fear that interferes with their daily life, including:

  1. Phobias: Specific phobias such as a fear of spiders, heights or leaving the house. By gradually exposing you to the feared object or situation, you learn to overcome the fear and reduce symptoms.
  2. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): By helping you confront and process traumatic memories, exposure therapy can help to reduce symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and hyper-vigilance.
  3. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): By exposing you to your fears and confronting intrusive thoughts, exposure therapy can help you resist compulsive behaviours.
  4. Panic disorder: By learning to tolerate physical sensations that are associated with panic attacks (e.g., rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness) through repeated exposure, you learn to reduce fears and gain a greater sense of control over symptoms.
  5. Social Anxiety Disorder: Exposure Therapy can make a huge difference to the way you interact with people, by simulating social situations that may evoke anxiety.

All in all, anyone who experiences a level of anxiety that interferes with your ability to live a fulfilling life can benefit from exposure therapy. With the guidance of one of our highly skilled therapists, you’ll be on your way to living the life you want.

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The Process of Exposure Therapy: A Step-by-Step Guide

So you’ll know what to expect when you enter the therapy space:

  1. Assessment: First up, your therapist will assess your symptoms and determine the specific object or situation that triggers your anxiety, developing a treatment plan that is tailored to your individual needs.
  2. Education: Your therapist will provide you with information about exposure therapy and how it works. They will also chat to you about the benefits and risks of the treatment, as well as any concerns or questions you may have – Ps. You’re always encouraged to be curious and ask questions.
  3. Gradual exposure: Your therapist will guide you through a series of exposure techniques that gradually increase in intensity. E.g., if you have a fear of spiders, you may be asked to talk about them, look at pictures of them, then move to watching a video and eventually bring a live spider into the room – (btw what you actually end up doing totally depends on your goals though)
  4. Coping skills: Your therapist will teach you coping skills and relaxation techniques to help you manage your anxiety during the exposure exercises, like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or mindful meditation.
  5. Homework: (but the kind that will truly benefit you in the long run): You will be given activities to practise outside of therapy such as exposing yourself to the feared object or situation in your daily life. Your therapist will provide guidance and support to help you navigate these challenges.
  6. Review: Your therapist will regularly review your progress and adjust the treatment plan as needed (we love collaboration). They will also work with you to identify any obstacles or setbacks and develop strategies to overcome them (again we love collaboration).

The Role of Cognitive Restructuring in Exposure Therapy

First up, what is cognitive restructuring? In a nutshell, it helps you reframe your thoughts and beliefs about your fears and anxieties.

Here’s how:

As we know during exposure therapy, you’re gradually exposed to your feared object or situation, which can naturally trigger feelings of anxiety, panic, and fear.

These feelings can lead to negative thoughts and beliefs like, “I can’t handle this,” “I am going to embarrass myself,” or even in extreme cases, “I am going to die.” – heavy stuff.

Cognitive restructuring involves noticing these unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and challenging them with more realistic (and therefore more helpful) one’s.

E.g., if you have a fear of public speaking and you believe that you will always embarrass yourself in front of others, your therapist will help to challenge this belief by asking you to think about times when you have successfully given a presentation or received positive feedback from others.

By reframing these unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, you learn to approach your fears with a more adaptive mindset. This can help reduce feelings of anxiety and make exposure therapy more effective, because yep you guessed it, our thoughts have a huge hold over our feelings and behaviours. Basically, we need to make sure all the pieces (mind, body and soul) are working together.

A timelapse photo of stars over a horizon
A long exposure coloured streak through the night sky with a figure standing beneath it

So… Is It For Me?

Exposure therapy is an effective treatment for anxiety and trauma-related disorders. It helps people confront their fears and learn to manage their symptoms in a safe space, guided by a skilled therapist.

By gradually exposing people to the feared object or situation, and helping them reframe their unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, exposure therapy can help people develop the skills to cope and gain greater confidence in themselves.

At The Indigo Project, we have a number of online therapists qualified in exposure therapy.

To find out more, get in touch via (02) 9212 5469 or [email protected] – or get matched to a therapist now.

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Meet Our Therapists

PhotoANNIA BARON

annia baron, Clinical Psychologist

PhotoBRE ELDER

bre elder, Senior Psychologist

PhotoNEKIYAH DHARSHI

nekiyah dharshi, Registered Psychologist

PhotoDR NAVIT GOHAR-KADAR

dr navit gohar-kadar, Clinical Psychologist

PhotoMAJA CZERNIAWSKA

maja czerniawska, Senior Psychologist

PhotoEUNICE CHEUNG

eunice cheung, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

PhotoAYANTHI DE SILVA

ayanthi de silva, Registered Psychologist

PhotoTAYLA GARDNER

tayla gardner, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

PhotoKATIE ODONOGHUE

katie odonoghue, Relationship Coach & Couples Therapist

PhotoLORNA MACAULAY

lorna macaulay, Senior Psychologist

PhotoSHUKTIKA BOSE

shuktika bose, Clinical Psychologist

PhotoDEEPIKA GUPTA

deepika gupta, Clinical Psychologist

PhotoDR EMER MCDERMOTT

dr emer mcdermott, Clinical Psychologist

PhotoNICOLE BURLING

nicole burling, Senior Psychologist

PhotoNATASHA KASSELIS

natasha kasselis, Senior Psychologist

PhotoDR PERRY MORRISON

dr perry morrison, Senior Psychologist

PhotoGAYNOR CONNOR

gaynor connor, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

PhotoSHAUNTELLE BENJAMIN

shauntelle benjamin, Registered Psychologist

PhotoLIZ KIRBY

liz kirby, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

PhotoSAM BARR

sam barr, Clinical Psychologist

PhotoDARREN EVERETT

darren everett, Senior Psychologist

PhotoJAMIE DE BRUYN

jamie de bruyn, Senior Psychologist

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is The Indigo Project?

We are a progressive online counselling practice, providing telehealth services in Australia. Our passionate and experienced local team includes psychologists, psychotherapists & counsellors, coaches and therapists that are trained to deliver online therapy to you in a safe and convenient way.

Whether you are looking for short or long term support through a challenging time, or looking to discover your potential, we want you to feel comfortable on every step of the journey.

Read more about Our Story 

Telehealth: About Therapy and Online Counselling

What can I expect from therapy? What is therapy like?

Every therapist is different and their therapeutic style and personalities are all unique. However, all of our Indigo practitioners will hold a compassionate and non-judgmental space for you, where you are free to be who you are. Your therapist is there to listen to you, guide you, and help you overcome life’s challenges.

Generally, you’ll spend the first session getting to know each other, talking about your history and what it is you’d like to work through. From your second session onwards, you’ll get to go deeper, peeling back the layers and all the while learning practical strategies to help you transform and grow.

At Indigo we encourage our clients to have at least 10-20 sessions, because we believe that therapy is a long-term journey of commitment, growth and investment in yourself. After seeing your therapist for a while, you may continue to book occasional check-in sessions as you feel more confident doing life with the knowledge and tools you have gained.

Who is online therapy for?

Everyone is welcome to attend online counselling or therapy with one of our practitioners at The Indigo Project.

Online counselling or therapy via Zoom is an accessible, safe and convenient option for those who are unable to attend face-to-face appointments, or simply prefer to meet online. Whether it be a busy schedule due to work and family, health-related reasons or distance, online counselling can help you.

What issues are suited for online therapy?

Our team of trained clinical psychologists, psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors attend to a range of common mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, grief and loss, life transitions, relationship issues and more.

A number of practitioners also specialise in areas such as sexuality, gender and identity, addiction, sports and performance, personality disorders and therapy for children and adolescents.

Several therapists also provide services in marriage counselling and couples therapy.

Finding the best psychologist or counsellor for me - where do I start?

We highly encourage you to view our practitioners and use the filtering options to find a psychologist or counsellor who can help you with the issues you are seeking help for.

Meet our therapists and what they can help you with here.

If you need help, our Therapy Matchmakers team will be able to match you with a practitioner. Give us a call on (02) 9212 5469 or email us at [email protected] so we can support you on your journey.

What if I can’t see the therapist I had in mind?

Our therapists typically have capacity to see several new clients each month. However these openings can get filled up fast from those who have been on a waitlist. If there is someone that you particularly want to see but is currently unavailable, we can place you on a waitlist until there is an opening.

If you prefer to attend an online counselling session sooner, our Therapy Matchmakers can help you find an alternative practitioner based on your needs and what you are looking to achieve in therapy.

Meeting a therapist for the first time can feel like a first date. If you don’t connect with your therapist on your first or second session, we’ll pair you with a new practitioner and your next session will be on the house* as part of our Perfect Match Promise.

*Terms and conditions apply.

Can I make an appointment for my child or dependent?

If you are the parent or legal guardian of a minor, you will need to make an appointment online or via the phone.

We have many psychologists, psychotherapists & counsellors who have experience dealing with children and adolescents in therapy. See who can help here.

Someone I know needs counselling. Can I book an appointment for them?

Those who require online counselling or therapy will have to make an appointment directly with The Indigo Project via our online booking form or on the phone. We do not accept bookings on behalf of an individual or couple from a third party unless as part of an insurance plan, support scheme or similar arrangement.

We want marriage or couples counselling. Can we see a couples counsellor together?

Couples are welcome to attend online therapy sessions together with one of our couples therapists.

Do I need to do anything before my first session?

We recommend setting up for your online therapy session 5-10 minutes before it commences. Make sure your computer or phone microphone and video is working, and that you are comfortable and ready to sit through your session uninterrupted.

There’s zero pressure to prepare anything for your first session but if you find it helpful, you can jot down some points about specific things you’d like to work on or discuss with your therapist.

Are my therapy sessions confidential?

Everything you discuss with your therapist here at Indigo is absolutely confidential, and will not be shared unless you or someone else is at risk of serious harm.

How do I pay for my online therapy session?

For first time clients, payment is made via debit or credit card at the time of booking. For returning clients, there are a number of payment methods available such as authorised direct debit or online via the payments link on your invoice.

Who to contact if you are in crisis

The Indigo Project is not a crisis service.

  • If you are in a crisis, if you are experiencing suicidal or homicidal thoughts, or somebody else is in danger, DO NOT use this service.
  • Call 000 or use these contacts for immediate crisis support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:

Lifeline 13 11 14 - A crisis support and suicide prevention service for all Australians.

Mental Health Line 1800 011 511 - The Mental Health Line offers professional help and advice for everyone. Operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 - Beyond Blue provide support to address issues related to depression, suicide, anxiety disorders and other related mental illnesses.

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 - A free service for people who are suicidal, caring for someone who is suicidal, bereaved by suicide or are health professionals supporting people affected by suicide.

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 - A counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.

Parentline 1300 1300 52 - Parent Line is a free telephone counselling and support service for parents and carers with children aged 0 to 18 who live in NSW.

What else does The Indigo Project do?

Our courses, workshops and events are designed to transform the way you think, feel and live.

Not ready to commit to therapy? Indigo founder Mary Hoang has created Get Your Sh*t Together, a self-directed digital course for those who want to develop greater self-awareness, tackle stress and anxiety, and learn practical skills to help heal, grow and thrive in life.

Mary has also written a book Darkness is Golden: A Guide to Personal Transformation and Dealing with Life's Messiness that combines her experience in the therapy room with unique audio experiences framed by her research in music psychology.

Available for free download are a number of toolkits to help you combat your depression, deal with your anxiety or transform your relationships.

Although an online counselling practice, The Indigo Project believes in the power of community, and we often host events throughout the year. Keep an eye out for events such as Listen Up, a contemporary digital sound bath some describe as a “soundtracked therapy session”.

We are also available for corporate events, workshops and related projects. Please contact us at [email protected] if you’d like to know more.

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