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14 min read

Exposure therapy for social anxiety

Written by Klarity Editorial Team

Published: Apr 17, 2024

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Zoe Russell

Table of contents

If you’re looking to break free from the grip of social anxiety, you’ve likely come across exposure therapy. Exposure therapy for social anxiety helps people with anxiety disorders by providing a structured approach to safely and gradually confront fears.

This article delves into the transformative power of exposure therapy. It explores various techniques, such as in vivo, imaginal, virtual reality, and interoceptive exposures, tailored to treat social anxiety. We also uncover how creating a hierarchy of fears, implementing gradual exposure strategies, and the role of therapists contribute to exposure therapy’s effectiveness.

When you’re ready to move forward, find a provider on Klarity and determine if exposure therapy for social anxiety is right for you.

How exposure therapy for social anxiety works

Exposure therapy for a social anxiety disorder operates on the principle of systematic desensitization, which gradually reduces the panic and dread associated with social situations. Additionally, exposure therapy for OCD is also a common tactic.  By exposing you to your fears in a controlled and safe manner it helps desensitize you to the sources of your anxiety, enabling you to build coping skills and confidence to overcome social anxiety.

The process includes the assessment of anxiety triggers, the development of an exposure plan, and guided sessions where you face your fears progressively. Over time, this leads to a significant reduction in anxiety levels and improved social interactions.

In vivo exposure

In vivo exposure involves facing real-world situations that trigger anxiety and is tailored to individual needs. It starts with less intimidating interactions, such as making eye contact with a cashier or asking a colleague a simple question, and gradually moves toward more challenging ones, like participating in social events or public speaking in front of a small group. 

This therapeutic method systematically encourages confronting your fears, reducing avoidance, and increasing confidence through real-life practice.

Imaginal exposure

Imaginal exposure combines mental visualization of the feared stimulus or scenario with detailed scripting developed alongside the therapist to capture the feared scenario, including the environment, people involved, and your reactions. 

This technique allows for the safe confrontation and processing of emotions and thoughts associated with fears in a controlled setting. It helps reduce the intensity of anxiety over time. It’s especially helpful for addressing inaccessible or past events.

For example, if you have social anxiety about giving a presentation, the script may include descriptions of the setting (for example, a conference room with dim lighting), the audience (for example, colleagues and supervisors sitting in rows), and your internal dialogue (for example, “I feel my heart racing as I step up to the podium.”).

By rehearsing this script repeatedly, you can gradually desensitize yourself to the anxiety-provoking situation and learn to manage your emotional responses.

Virtual reality exposure

Virtual reality exposure therapy leverages technology to simulate an immersive experience for coping with anxiety-inducing scenarios without real-life challenges. It offers the versatility of immediate scenario repetition and adjustment, simulating a broad spectrum of social interactions for effective practice.

Interoceptive exposure

Interoceptive exposure includes exercises to deliberately induce physical sensations of anxiety, such as heart palpitations or shortness of breath, and may extend to inducing dizziness through spinning. This method aims to normalize the experience of anxiety symptoms, teaching that they’re manageable and not due to social failure.

Common fears and exposure therapy techniques

The challenges of social anxiety revolve around confronting common fears that can significantly impact your daily life. Exposure therapy techniques offer a path to face and manage these fears gradually. In the end, it reduces their power and improves overall functioning in social settings.

The following are common fears associated with social anxiety and the exposure therapy techniques that can help you resolve them.

Eating in public

Eating in public can trigger intense social anxiety symptoms due to fears of judgment or eating improperly. Initial exposure therapy steps might involve practicing eating in front of a mirror to become comfortable with the act of being seen while eating. 

This can progress to dining with a trusted friend at their home, gradually moving toward eating in increasingly crowded and diverse public settings, building confidence and comfort at each stage.

Using public restrooms (Paruresis)

Paruresis is anxiety about using public restrooms and going to the bathroom in front of other people, eve at home. It’s often due to fears of judgment or lack of privacy. Exposure therapy can start with you simply visiting public restrooms to acclimate to the environment and then gradually progress to using the facilities during off-peak times. Finally, you can practice using them when they’re busier. Each step is aimed at reducing anxiety through repeated exposure.

Phone phobia

Phone phobia stems from a fear of awkward conversations or saying something incorrect. Beginning exposure might involve making nonessential calls to familiar people and slowly advancing to more significant calls like scheduling appointments. Each step is designed to build conversational confidence and reduce the social phobia of telephone-related activities.

Fear of social situations

This fear encompasses anxiety in a variety of social settings. Exposure therapy can start with brief interactions in familiar settings and extend to participation in small group activities. It can eventually move to larger social gatherings to gradually reduce discomfort in social contexts.

Fear of being the center of attention

This involves social anxiety over being watched or evaluated by others in public. Exposure might start with performing minor tasks in front of a small group and systematically increasing the audience size and the task’s visibility. The goal is to desensitize yourself to being the focus of attention.

Public speaking fears

Fear of speaking in public is common. It involves worrying about judgment or failure. Initial exposure techniques may involve speaking in front of a mirror or a small, supportive group. This type of exposure therapy for social anxiety gradually increases the audience size to build your confidence in public speaking situations.

Fear of conflict with others

This fear includes social anxiety around disagreements or confrontations. Beginning with role-playing mild conflict scenarios in a safe environment, like at your therapist’s office, can help you become more comfortable with handling interpersonal conflicts. You can then progressively work toward more challenging conflict situations and practice them at home. 

Planning and implementing exposure therapy

Effective exposure therapy for social anxiety involves strategic planning and execution. It’s crucial to tailor the therapy to your individual needs, ensuring a structured approach that addresses your specific fears and anxieties. 

Below, we explore how to practice exposure therapy through the foundational steps of creating a hierarchy of fears and employing various techniques for gradual exposure. We also highlight the pivotal role a therapist has in guiding and supporting you during your journey toward overcoming social anxiety.

Create a hierarchy of fears

Constructing a fear hierarchy is a vital first step in exposure therapy. It involves listing social or performance situations that cause you anxiety, ranked from least to most frightening. This systematic arrangement helps you confront your fears in a manageable sequence.

Starting with less intimidating scenarios and gradually moving to more challenging ones offers a smoother adaptation process.

Techniques for gradual exposure

Gradual exposure is a key method for pacing the management of social anxiety, focusing on incremental engagement with anxiety-provoking situations. It includes:

  • Graded exposure: This approach involves starting with less intimidating social situations and gradually facing more challenging ones, allowing you to build confidence.
  • Flooding: Contrasts with graded exposure by immediately confronting the most daunting social scenarios, aiming for a rapid decrease in anxiety.
  • Systematic desensitization: This technique pairs relaxation exercises with exposure to anxious situations, training you to remain calm in what were previously triggering environments.

These strategies are designed to help you slowly adjust to and become more comfortable in social settings and effectively diminish your anxiety.

The role of a therapist in exposure therapy

Your therapist plays a crucial role in exposure therapy for social anxiety. They provide expert guidance, support, and reassurance throughout the process. By creating a safe and trusting environment, your therapist can help you navigate your fears, offer strategies for coping with anxiety, and reinforce progress. 

The therapist’s involvement is instrumental in ensuring the success of your therapy. It empowers you to realize lasting change by reaching your therapy goals and experiencing the benefits of teletherapy.

Discover a tailored approach to anxiety treatment that fits your unique needs.

Online and self-guided exposure therapy options

Accessing therapy for social anxiety is flexible and convenient. Online and self-guided exposure therapy options let you work on your anxiety at your own pace and in the comfort of your home. 

These methods provide a variety of resources and tools designed to help you confront and manage your fears directly, promoting gradual improvement and confidence in social situations.

Resources for self-help exposure therapy

Self-help resources for exposure therapy include a variety of books, websites, and mobile apps designed to guide you through the process. These tools often provide step-by-step programs, exercises, and tips for tackling social anxiety.

Additionally, many self-help methods offer community support features, where you can share experiences and successes and have a sense of belonging and encouragement. From crafting personal fear hierarchies to offering practical exercises for gradual exposure, these resources empower you to take charge of your therapy journey, offering flexibility and control over your progress.

Online therapy platforms

Online therapy platforms have revolutionized access to mental health services, making it easier for individuals with social anxiety to receive professional guidance at times that work for their schedule. Klarity, for example, stands out by giving you access to choose a board-certified therapist who specializes in exposure therapy for social anxiety. 

On Klarity, you can do video consultations, receive a personalized treatment plan, and access support from the comfort of home. You can also choose or in person sessions if preferred. The online therapy option can make therapy more accessible, as it aligns with the needs of those who may feel apprehensive about in-person sessions or wonder if therapy is worth it. Online therapy platforms offer a secure and supportive environment for tackling social anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Role of medication in conjunction with exposure therapy

Medication can play a supportive role alongside exposure therapy for the treatment of social anxiety and enhance the therapeutic outcome. While exposure therapy addresses the behavioral aspects of anxiety, prescription medications, such as beta blockers, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or benzodiazepines may help manage the physiological symptoms, making it easier for you to engage in and benefit from exposure practices. 

This combined approach can offer a more comprehensive treatment strategy, targeting both the mind and body’s response to anxiety. Board-certified providers personalize treatment and therapy to suit your needs and conditions, ensuring a balanced and effective plan.

Find a provider on Klarity for social anxiety therapy

Finding the right provider for social anxiety therapy is crucial for effective treatment. With the providers on Klarity, you can start your journey toward overcoming social anxiety with confidence, knowing you have access to personalized and flexible care from qualified professionals.

Find a provider today for exposure therapy for social anxiety.


American Psychological Association. “What Is Exposure Therapy?” 2017.

 Talkspace. “Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety.”  Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD. Sept. 28, 2023.

Verywell Mind. “How to Practice Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder.” Arlin Cuncic, MA.  Sept. 19, 2020.

Choosing Therapy. “Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety.” Anabella Barajas, MA, LMHC. Sept. 14, 2023.

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