When we fall into states of fight-flight or freeze, we cannot objectively work through difficult thoughts and resulting emotions, often leaving them unresolved, fuelling the same old cyclical event-response behaviour. However, the theory behind exposure therapy is that by re-imagining the event at another time, when we feel safe and supported in our environment, we get another chance to work through and update the old (and often no longer true) thoughts. To feel and then release the associated emotions.
Several therapies that have shown promise in the research as tools that help us go back to the stressful event so we can re-experience from a more confident and empowered orientation (with a higher sense of coherence). As a result, we can feel the emotions that need to be felt and with practice, upgrade old belief systems that fuelled the stressor in the first place. Doing this re-exposure work after the stress response passes, is a great way to prevent future or reduce the intensity of future triggers. Others will want a more formal therapeutic environment to facilitate the feelings of safety necessary to stay present and connected (avoiding triggers that promote dissociation).
Two popular therapeutic tools that support re-exposure are EMDR and CBT.
EMDR involves eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which as the title suggests can involve a variety of techniques to direct the eyes back and forth while re-imagining a triggering event. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) brings awareness to the relationship between thoughts (conscious, automatic, core beliefs beneath) and behaviours. This technique works toward behaviour change through self-monitoring, scheduling, and exposure-response prevention.
In an extensive meta-analysis of studies over the past decade, researchers (Khan et al., 2018), found EMDR and CBT to be equally effective at reducing depression but EMDR was superior in its ability to reduce anxiety and PTSD symptoms.
Ultimately, re-exposure practices, whether or not part of formal therapy, are an excellent tool to work with past traumas projecting into the present day, reducing their intensity until they are no longer a perceived threat. We can practice with this tool on our own or with another, reducing our future risk of falling into fight-flight-freeze when a similar situation arises.