With the gradual exposure technique you gradually expose yourself to the thing you fear in a series of small steps, with each exposure increasing in intensity.
This could be compared to slowly dipping your toe into a swimming pool, and then gradually dipping the rest of your body into the pool as you adjust to the temperature of the water.
Psychologists often use this technique when helping people to overcome phobias, as it allows the patient to progress at their own pace and in a way that they feel comfortable with.
So for an example, lets take someone with an extreme fear of spiders. Whereas the immediate exposure technique would require for them to immediately hold a spider, a gradual exposure technique would first involve them thinking about spiders or looking at pictures of spiders.
They would then be placed in the same room as a spider, and, over a series of sessions, move closer to it until they felt comfortable standing right next to it. The next steps would involve moving their hand closer to the spider, but doing so in their own time and to a level which they are comfortable with.
This process would be repeated until they are eventually able to hold the spider, and then do so for longer and longer periods.
The main disadvantage of this technique is that you will usually need someone with you to help you through the process. Unlike immediate exposure where you can just dive right in, with gradual exposure it can be hard to push yourself forward without help because you have lots of time to think about the thing that you fear.
You can however, still use the gradual exposure technique on your own. For example, if you have difficulty talking to members of the opposite sex, you could start by talking to people who you will never see again, such as by asking a stranger for the time. You can then start talking to salespeople, people over the phone, people older than you and finally, people who you are sexually attracted to.
The basic idea is to gradually desensitize yourself by initially starting with non-threatening situations, and then building up over time to things which are slightly more threatening until you reach your eventual goal.
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