When you have experienced a traumatic event, there may be all kinds of thoughts, feelings, and situations that remind you of it. Because memories of the trauma cause anxiety, you can quickly be tempted to start trying to avoid the memories. This can provide some peace of mind in the short term but can become problematic in the long term. You will not experience that your anxious expectations do not match the reality. Confronting the memories is, therefore, important to help you overcome your anxiety. This confrontation is called exposure.
Imaginary Exposure is a method during which you are exposed to your traumatic memories. By recalling these memories – and, therefore, not avoiding them – the anxiety you experience while recalling the event will eventually subside. You will discover that the traumatic memories are not as dangerous as they feel and that you are able to endure them. You will gain more control over your memories by reliving the trauma in your mind. As a result, the memories become less easily triggered and you’ll experience fewer flashbacks and/or nightmares and/or you are able to cope with them in a better way. Through this ‘phasing out’, incorrect unhappy thoughts about the traumatic event are also corrected.
During exposure treatment, you will confront things that make you anxious in a systematic way and under safe circumstances. By seeking out anxiety in this way, you will discover that your anxious expectations do not match reality. You will eventually feel more relaxed. This is also referred to as ‘phasing out’. It can be compared to cycling again after a bike accident: it is scary at the start, but by pushing through, you will see that you are able to cycle just as well as you could before. As a result, you ultimately begin to cycle again with less anxiety.
Keijsers, G. P. J., Van Minnen, A., Verbraak, M., Hoogduin, C. A. L. & Emmelkamp, P., (2017). Protocollaire behandelingen voor volwassenen met psychische klachten (p. 358/359)