Prolonged exposure therapy: past, present, and future

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The Cutting EdgeDEPRESSION AND ANXIETY 28 : 10431047 (2011)PROLONGED EXPOSURE THERAPY: PAST,PRESENT, AND FUTUREEdna B. Foa, Ph.D., is a professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the University ofPennsylvania and Director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. Dr. Foadevoted her academic career to study the psychopathology and treatment of anxiety disorders,primarily obsessivecompulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).Her research, aimed at delineating theoretical frameworks, targeted treatments, and treatmentmechanisms of pathological anxiety has been highly influential. She is currently one of theleading experts in the areas of PTSD OCD. The treatment program she has developed forPTSD sufferers has received the most evidence for its efficacy and has been disseminated in theUnited States and around the world.Dr. Foa has published 18 books and more than 350 articles and book chapters and has lecturedextensively around the world. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards andhonors, among them the Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Clinical Psychology Award from the AmericanPsychological Association; Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the International Society for Traumatic StressStudies; Lifetime Achievement Award presented by the Association for Behavior and Cognitive Therapies; TIME 100most influential people of the world; 2010 Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Trauma Psychology Award from theAmerican Psychological Association; and the Inaugural International ObsessiveCompulsive Disorder FoundationOutstanding Career Achievement Award.As is apparent from its title, I will focus in this articleon prolonged exposure therapy (PE), a treatmentprogram developed specifically for posttraumatic stressdisorder (PTSD).[1] It is important to note, however,that PE has its roots in the long tradition of exposuretherapy for anxiety disorders, and in the conceptualiza-tion of these disorders and their treatment withinemotional processing theory (EPT).[2,3] Therefore, Iwill first discuss briefly how EPT views the psycho-pathology underlying anxiety disorders and themechanisms that are involved in exposure therapy forthese disorders. I will then describe how EPTexplainsthe psychopathology of PTSD and how PE addressesthis psychopathology. Next, I will describe the treat-ment program and summarize the empirical literaturethat supports its efficacy and effectiveness. Finally,I will discuss novel ways of using exposure therapy forPTSD.EXPOSURE THERAPY AND ITSTHEORETICAL FOUNDATIONExposure therapy is a set of treatment programs thatare commonly used to reduce pathological fear andrelated emotions, such as guilt, common in posttrau-matic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxietydisorders (e.g., obsessivecompulsive disorder). Duringexposure for pathological anxiety, patients intentionallyconfront feared, but otherwise safe, objects, situations,thoughts, sensations, and memories with the goal ofreducing fear and other negative reactions to the sameor similar stimuli in the future.[4]Exposure procedures are divided into three primarytypes: in vivo (real life), imaginal, and interoceptive.The selection of the type of exposure is dictated by thepathological characteristics of a given disorder. It isalso often the case that several types of exposure areconcurrently used in exposure programs.The conceptualization of anxiety disorders wasgreatly influenced by Mowrers two-factor model,[5]which explained the acquisition of fear as involvingclassical conditioning, and the maintenance of theconditioned fear avoidance as involving and operantconditioning. Accordingly, avoidance prevents theorganism from extinction learning; that is, fromlearning that the CS no longer predicts harm. Mowrerstwo-factor model implies that therapy must notonly promote extinction through confrontationwith erroneously feared objects, but also eliminateavoidances that would impede extinction learning.In 1986, Foa and Kozak[3] developed emotionalprocessing theory (EPT) in which they expanded onCorrespondence to: Edna B. Foa, Center for the Treatment andStudy of Anxiety, University of Pennsylvania, 3535 Market Street, 6thFloor, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail: conflict of interest was declared.Published online in Wiley Online Library ( 10.1002/da.20907rr 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.these early learning accounts of anxiety and itstreatment by adopting Langs concept of the fear(emotional) structure,[6,7] to create a comprehensivemodel for understanding pathological anxiety and themechanisms involved in exposure therapy for anxietydisorders. According to EPT, a fear (emotional)structure is a program for escaping or avoiding dangerthat includes representations of feared stimuli, responses,and the meaning of stimuli and responses. This structureis activated by input that matches the information storedin the structure. Foa and Kozak[3] emphasized theimportance of meaning representations as distinguishingbetween normal and pathological fear structures whichunderlie the different anxiety disorders.Foa and Kozak[3] assert that psychological interven-tions known to reduce fear, such as exposure, achievetheir effects by emotional processing, the process bywhich accurate information is incorporated into thefear structure and modifies the pathological elements inthe structure. Influenced by modern learning theoriesthat conceptualize extinction as creating new associa-tions rather than modifying old associations,[8] Foa andMcNally[9] proposed that exposure therapy does notalter the existing pathological structure, but ratherforms competing structures that do not includepathological associations among stimulus, response,and meaning representations. For therapy to be success-ful, the new emotional structure needs to be more easilyretrievable when shared elements between the old andthe new structures are present; conversely, when the oldpathological structure is activated, relapse occurs.EPT specifies two conditions that are necessary fortherapeutic fear reduction to occur. First, the fear(emotional) structure must be activated in order for itto be available for modification. Second, new informa-tion that is incompatible with the pathologicalelements of the fear structure must be available andincorporated into the pathological memory structure(or form a new nonpathological competing structure).Exposure is a convenient and efficient way to satisfythese two conditions: approaching feared, distressingbut safe stimuli is likely to activate the fear (emotional)structure and at the same time provide correctiveinformation about consequences of approaching thefeared stimuli (e.g., The small dog did not bite me,When facing the dog, my anxiety did not lastforever). The incorporation of realistic informationinto the fear structure is the essence of emotionalprocessing and explains why exposure effectively reducespathological emotions. EPTs emphasis on integration ofdisconfirming information as the mechanism of change isconsistent with Rescorla and Wagners[10] mathematicalmodel of classical conditioning in which learning resultsfrom the discrepancy between what is expected tohappen and what actually happens. This learningthen modifies future expectations, according tothe RescorlaWagner model, or meaning elementsaccording to EPT. For a detailed review of research insupport of EPT, see Gillihan and Foa.[11]EMOTIONAL PROCESSINGTHEORY OF PTSDAlthough individual anxiety disorders share somecommon elements, such as the belief that anxiety willlast forever in a feared situation, these disorders aredistinguished with respect to the specific pathologicalelements of the underlying fear structure.[2] Becauseactivation of the fear structure depends on the matchbetween the information that is presented and elementsof the fear structure, exposure interventions aretailored to the pathological elements that are char-acteristic of each disorder. Matching the exposure tothe disorder-specific fear structure should lead togreater fear reduction by promoting activation of thestructure and providing information that is incompa-tible with the key pathological elements of thestructure. Exposure techniques are also designed toeliminate characteristic avoidance behaviors, such assituational avoidance, safety behaviors, ritualizing, ordistraction, which would prevent emotional processingfrom occurring.In PTSD, the fear (emotional) structure associatedwith the traumatic memory is conceived as a specificpathological fear structure that include erroneousassociations among stimuli and response that werepresent at the time of the trauma and their meaning.First, the traumatic memory structure is thought to becharacterized by a particularly large number ofstimulus elements that are erroneously associated withdanger (e.g., All men are rapists), which renders thefear easily activated and is reflected in the perceptionthat the world is entirely dangerous. Second, therepresentations of how the person behaved duringand after the trauma as well as the presence of PTSDsymptoms become associated with the meaning of self-incompetence and inability to cope. These twoerroneous perceptions, The world is entirely danger-ous and I am completely incompetent, promoteavoidance of trauma-related thoughts, images, andsituations, which in turn prevents emotional processingand the resultant recovery.PROLONGED EXPOSURE FORPTSD: ITS THEORETICALFOUNDATION, PRACTICE,EFFICACY, AND EFFECTIVENESSPE for PTSD illustrates the way in which theparticular exposure program developed for a specificanxiety disorder is informed by the nature of thepsychopathology underlying the disorder.[1,12] As notedabove, EPT conceptualizes chronic PTSD as a failureto adequately process the trauma memory due toextensive avoidance of thoughts and situations that aretrauma reminders. These behaviors maintain indivi-duals erroneous negative beliefs about themselves and1044 FoaDepression and Anxietythe world and prevent emotional processing fromoccurring. Accordingly, the goal of PE is to promoteemotional processing through deliberate systematicconfrontation with trauma-related stimuli. In vivoexposure to trauma reminders and imaginal exposure(repeated revisiting and recounting the trauma aloud)followed by discussion of the revisiting experience(processing) are used concurrently in order to dis-confirm the erroneous beliefs that underlie PTSD.Typically, PE is conducted over 815 sessions, witheach session lasting 6090min.In vivo exposures are designed to target PTSDpatients erroneous perceptions that safe stimuli areharmful and therefore should be avoided, that theiranxiety will last forever if they remain in trauma-relatedsituations rather than escape them, and that they areincapable of coping with stress and distress. Conse-quently, exposure exercises typically include system-atically and gradually approaching safe situations thatthe person perceives to be dangerous (e.g., going out inthe evening with friends), as well as situations that theindividual avoids not because they are perceived asdangerous but because they are trauma reminders andcause high distress that they would not be able totolerate (e.g., watching news about the war in Afghani-stan). Any safety behaviors that interfere with activationof the trauma memory structure and/or preventdisconfirmation of danger are detected and eliminatedwhen conducting in vivo exposure. The in vivoexposures are designed to ensure successfully achievingthe two necessary conditions for emotional processing:activation of the trauma memory and disconfirmation ofthe expected disasters. Unlike protocols in otheranxiety disorders, in PE in vivo exposures are rarelypracticed in session; rather, they are assigned ashomework in order to allow sufficient time for imaginalexposure in session.Imaginal exposure comprises a large part of thetreatment session. Individuals with PTSD frequentlyhold erroneous beliefs that recalling the traumamemory is dangerous or harmful (e.g., will cause themto go crazy or lose control), that anxiety will last foreverwhen thinking about the trauma, and that rememberingis like being back in the trauma. Revisiting andrecounting the most distressing traumatic memory inimagination is designed to help patients organize thememory, reexamination of negative perceptions abouttheir conduct during the trauma, regain new perspec-tives about themselves and others, distinguish betweenthinking about the trauma and reexperiencing thetrauma, generate habituation to the trauma memoryso that the trauma can be remembered without causingundue anxiety, and foster the realization that engagingin the trauma memory does not result in harm. Animportant consideration is to ensure that patients areappropriately emotionally engaged (being activated)with the trauma memory during imaginal exposure.Imaginal exposure creates a powerful opportunity fornew learning by activating the trauma memorystructure and bringing to the surface both unhelpfulor unrealistic beliefs that maintain the symptoms ofPTSD as well as new insights or awareness aboutevidence that contradicts the erroneous beliefs.However, patients may have difficulty identifying andintegrating disconfirming information that emergesfrom imaginal exposure on their own. Processing isconducted immediately after imaginal exposure inorder to explore contradictions between the patientserroneous perceptions and what they had recountedduring the imaginal exposure. Encouraging patients toelaborate on new insights and making them explicit islikely to facilitate emotional processing and modifica-tion of the pathological emotional structure.PE is an exposure therapy for PTSD that receivedthe most empirical evidence for its efficacy. It hasbeen shown to be highly effective for patientswith a wide variety of traumatic experiences. Ina series of randomized controlled trials, PE demon-strated large treatment effects compared to waitlist(WL) control groups and similar effects comparedto other active treatments, such as stress inoculationtraining, cognitive processing therapy, and eyemovement desensitization and reprocessing.[1317]A recent meta-analysis found a large-effect size forPE compared to WL or control active treatments atposttreatment and follow-up.[18] Research also indi-cates that PE can be effectively disseminated tocommunity therapists in the United States and else-where.[13,1921] Importantly, PE is well tolerated bypatients[22] and does not cause long-term exacerbationof symptoms.[23]FUTURE DIRECTION INEXPOSURE THERAPY FOR PTSDAlthough exposure therapy has been studied exten-sively in the treatment of anxiety disorders, includingPTSD, there continue to be important areas ofongoing investigation. One pressing question is howto increase the immediate and long-term efficacy ofPE. Despite its success, some patients do not improveand among the patients who experience improvement,many remain somewhat symptomatic. Foa andKozak[24] suggest that the progress of CBT might beslow due to alienation from experimental psychologyand psychopathology research (p 601). Recently,investigators have begun integrating research frombasic science in an attempt to enhance exposuretreatment so that it may be effectively delivered infewer sessions. Specifically, researchers have beentesting clinical applications of pharmacological agentsthat may enhance inhibitory learning during exposure.For example, D-cycloserine has been shown to enhancethe effects of exposure therapy for height phobia,[25]but its effects on exposure therapy for PTSD is asyet unknown. Other agents, such as yohimbineand methylene blue, are also being investigated as1045The Cutting Edge: Prolonged ExposureDepression and Anxietypossible adjuncts to exposure therapies to enhance fearextinction.Researchers have also been challenged by the factthat extinction learning does not appear to eliminate ormodify pathological fear responses, but rather createnew learning that inhibits activation of pathologicalfear structures. Research shows that extinguished fearresponse (CS) can return when the unconditionedstimulus (US) is presented in the absence of the CS(reinstatement,)[26] when the CS is presented incontexts other than the extinction setting (renewal),[27]and spontaneously (spontaneous recovery) [e.g., [28]].These phenomena indicate that extinction proceduresdo not eradicate the original conditioning learning. Intherapy, the return of pathological fear constitutes arelapse. Although return of symptoms is rare amongpatients with PTSD,[26] some patients do relapse aftersuccessfully benefiting from PE.Recent evidence suggests that pathological fearresponses may in fact be changed if correctiveinformation is presented during the reconsolidationperiod when retrieved information is liable.[27] Indivi-duals who received a reminder of the conditionedstimulus in the reconsolidation window failed to demon-strate spontaneous recovery[30] and reinstatement.[31]These remarkable findings suggest that new informationcan be incorporated into old memory structures when thememory is malleable during the reconsolidation window.Although this hypothesis requires further investigation, animportant challenge for researchers is to explore whetherthis basic science research can be translated to enhanceexposure in treatment protocols for PTSD.A variant of PE was found helpful with complicatedgrief where individuals recount the story of thedeath using imaginal exposure and conduct grief-related in vivo exposures in a fashion similar toPE. This treatment has been found more effectivethan interpersonal therapy in the reduction ofgrief-related symptoms.[28] Exposure has also beenused in the treatment of depression to target experi-ential avoidance. In Adele Hayes exposure-based cognitive therapy (EBCT) for depression,patients are encouraged to approach negativethoughts and emotions associated with theirdepression through activities, such as writing essaysabout their depression and recounting these essays intherapy sessions. In a preliminary open treatmenttrial, EBCT effectively reduced depressive symptomsand symptom reduction was negatively associatedwith avoidance.[29] Although this work is still in itsearly stages, these research literatures illustratehow exposure techniques can have therapeutic applica-tions beyond the reduction of pathological fear.Specifically, exposure may be effective when patholo-gical emotions that arise from erroneous perceptionsare maintained through cognitive and behavioralavoidances that prevent access to and integration ofdisconfirming information in the memory structure.Indeed, prolonged exposure reduces not only PTSDsymptoms but also depression, anger, guilt, and generalanxiety.Although exposure therapy has been used in psy-chotherapy for more than 50 years, there continues tobe exciting frontiers for exploration. Recent advancesin our understanding of basic learning processes andthe links between biological and behavioral learningmechanisms have the potential to break the efficacyceiling[24] of cognitive behavior therapy by refiningand augmenting exposure treatment techniques tomaximize therapeutic outcomes.REFERENCES1. Foa EB, Hembree EA, Rothbaum BO. Prolonged ExposureTherapy for PTSD: Emotional Processing of TraumaticExperiences, Therapist Guide. New York: Oxford UniversityPress; 2007.2. Foa EB, Kozak MJ. Treatment of anxiety disorders: implicationsfor psychopathology. In: Tuma EH, Maser JD, editors. Anixetyand the Anxiety Disorders. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; 1985:421452.3. Foa EB, Kozak MJ. Emotional processing of fear: exposure tocorrective information. Psychol Bull 1986;99:2035.4. Marks IM. Reduction of fear: towards a unifying theory. J CanPsychiatr Assoc 1973;18:912.5. Mowrer OH. On the dual nature of learninga reinterpretationof conditioning and problem solving. Harvard Educ Rev1947;17:102148.6. Lang PJ. Imagery in therapy: an information processing analysisof fear. Behav Ther 1977;8:862-866.7. Lang PJ. A bio-informational theory of emotional imagery.Psychophysiology 1979;16:495512.8. Bouton ME, Swartzentruber D. Sources of relapse afterextinction in Pavlovian and instrumental learning. Clin PsycholRev 1991;11:123140.9. Foa EB, McNally RJ. Mechanisms of change in exposure therapy.In: Rapee RM, editor. Current Controversies in the AnxietyDisorders. New York: Guilford Press; 1996:329343.10. Rescorla RA, Wagner AR. A theory of Pavlovian conditioning:variations in the effectiveness of reinforcement and nonreinfor-cement. In: Black AH, Prokasy WF, editors. ClassicalConditioning II: Current Research and Theory. New York:Appleton Century Crofts; 1972:6499.11. Gillihan SJ, Foa, EB, in press. Fear extinction and emotionalprocessing theory: a critical review. In: Schachtman TR, Reilly S,editors. Conditioning and Animal Learning: Human and Non-Human Animal Applications. Oxford, UK: Oxford UniversityPress.12. Foa EB, Cahill SP. Psychological therapies: EmotionalProcessing. In: Smelser NJ, Bates PB. editors. InternationalEncyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford:Elsevier; 2001:1236312369.13. Foa EB, Hembree EA, Cahill SP, et al. Randomized trialof prolonged exposure for posttraumatic stress disorder withand without cognitive restructuring: outcome at academicand community clinics. J Consult Clin Psychol 2005;73:953964.14. Marks I, Lovell K, Noshirvani H, Livanou M, Thrasher S.Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder by exposure and/orcognitive restructuring: a controlled study. Arch Gen Psychiatry1998;55:317325.1046 FoaDepression and Anxiety15. Paunovic N, Ost LG. Cognitive-behavior therapy vs exposuretherapy in the treatment of PTSD in refugees. Behav Res Ther2001;39:11831197.16. Resick PA, Nishith P, Weaver TL, Astin MC, Feuer CA. Acomparison of cognitive-processing therapy with prolongedexposure and a waiting condition for the treatment of chronicposttraumatic stress disorder in female rape victims. J ConsultClin Psychol 2002;70:867879.17. Rothbaum BO, Astin MC, Marsteller F. Prolongedexposure versus eye movement desensitization and reprocessing(EMDR) for PTSD rape victims. J Trauma Stress 2005;18:607616.18. Powers MB, Halpern JM, Ferenschak MP, Gillihan SJ, Foa EB. Ameta-analytic review of prolonged exposure for posttraumaticstress disorder. Clin Psychol Rev 2010;30:635641.19. Asukai N, Saito A, Tsuruta N, Kishimoto J, Nishikawa T.Efficacy of exposure therapy for Japanese patients withposttraumatic stress disorder due to mixed traumaticevents: a randomized controlled study. J Trauma Stress2010;21:340343.20. Karlin BE, Ruzek JI, Chard KM, et al. Dissemination ofevidence-based psychological treatments for posttraumatic stressdisorder in the Veterans Health Administration. J Trauma Stress2010;23:663673.21. Nacasch N, Foa EB, Huppert JD, et al. The efficacy ofprolonged exposure therapy for combat and terror-relatedPTSD: a randomized control comparison with treatment asusual. J Clin Psychiatry 2010;72:11741180.22. Hembree EA, Foa EB, Dorfan NM, Street GP, Kowalski J, Tu X.Do patients drop out prematurely from exposure therapy forPTSD? J Trauma Stress 2003;16:555562.23. Foa EB, Zoellner LA, Feeny NC, Hembree EA,Alvarez-Conrad J. Does imaginal exposure exacerbate PTSDsymptoms? J Consult Clin Psychol 2002;70:10221028.24. Foa EB, Kozak MJ. Beyond the efficacy ceiling? Cognitivebehavior therapy in search of theory. Behav Ther1997;28:601611.25. Hofmann SG, Pollack MH, Otto MW. Augmentation treatmentof psychotherapy for anxiety disorders with d-cycloserine. CNSDrug Rev 2006;12:208217.26. Foa EB, Dancu CV, Hembree EA, Jaycox LH, Meadows EA,Street GP. A comparison of exposure therapy, stress inoculationtraining, and their combination for reducing posttraumatic stressdisorder in female assault survivors. J Consult Clin Psychol1999;67:194200.27. Schiller D, Monfils MH, Raio CM, Johnson DC, Ledoux JE,Phelps EA. Preventing the return of fear in humans usingreconsolidation update mechanisms. Nature 2009;463:49-53.28. Shear K, Frank E, Houck PR, Reynolds3rd CF. Treatment ofcomplicated grief: a randomized controlled trial. J Am MedAssoc 2005;293:26012608.29. Hayes AM, Beevers CG, Feldman GC, Laurenceau JP,Perlman C. Avoidance and processing as predictors of symptomchange and positive growth in an integrative therapy fordepression. Int J Behav Med 2005;12:111122.30. Leung HT, Westbrook RF. Spontaneous recovery of extin-guished fear responses deepens their extinction: a role for error-correction mechanisms. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Process2008;34:461474.31. Rescorla RA, Heth CD. Reinstatement of fear to an extinguishedconditioned stimulus. J Exp Psychol Anim Behav Process1975;1:8896.1047The Cutting Edge: Prolonged ExposureDepression and Anxiety


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