Exposure Therapy is not usually what one thinks of when they think of addiction treatment. For example, you might have heard of Motivational Interviewing or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, but not Exposure Therapy. In fact, this form of treatment is used to treat anxieties and phobias, but rarely has it been used to treat addiction – until now.

Exposure Therapy involves the exposing someone to whatever he or she is afraid of.  The point is to lower their level of fear by being in the presence of the object long enough to learn that it doesn’t have to induce fear after all. If the client can see that there is no danger, he or she might be able to overcome the anxiety or fear. For example, a therapist who uses Exposure Therapy might accompany a client to the top of a building who might be afraid of heights. Once that client recognizes that he or she is in fact safe in that situation, and then perhaps the level of fear might go down.

The point of including Exposure Therapy in addiction treatment has to do with the fact that a majority of learning how to stay sober is also learning how to handle high risk situations. Frequently, the development of an addiction happens begins of poor coping skills in situations that are difficult to face. Once someone gets sober, the fear high risk situations can continue, creating isolation or limiting networks of support. Another danger of not knowing how to handle high risk situations in when someone is in recovery and they are fearful of bars or seeing people they know that are still getting high. They are afraid that being faced with those people or places might make them vulnerable to using drugs again, or drinking.

Of course, recovering addicts are already vulnerable to relapse and the dangers old and familiar people and places might lead to drug use or drinking. Some recovering addicts become so fearful of these situations that it creates anxiety which only makes the situation worse.

Dr. A. Tom Horvath, the president of SMART Recovery, regularly uses Exposure Therapy with his clients. For instance, if an individual is afraid of driving down a particular street because there are many bars and clubs in that location, then he might help a client actually visit that street. Of course, the client is accompanied by a therapist or trusted friend so that relapse doesn’t actually occur. Instead, if he or she can stay long enough without drinking then a new connection might be formed in the brain. In this case, a client might be able to see that he or she is safe at a bar and that he or she has the power to not drink.

However, Dr. Horvath points out that exposure therapy only works if the client is able to stay with their fear long enough to see through it. For instance, if someone who is afraid of walking down a particular street because there are bars there and that person can’t stay with their fear long enough then the healing isn’t going to take place. However, the therapy has shown to be successful in many recovering addicts.

If you are interested in this form of therapy, talk to your current therapist about it. If you do not have a therapist, you may want to involve a mental health professional in your recovery.

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