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Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) is a form of behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. It is characterized by two main treatment procedures – imaginal and in vivo exposures. Imaginal exposure is repeated 'on-purpose' retelling of the trauma memory. In vivo exposure is gradually confronting situations, places, and things that are reminders of the trauma or feel dangerous (despite being objectively safe). Additional procedures include processing of the trauma memory and breathing retraining.
Prolonged exposure therapy was developed by Edna B Foa, Director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) is a theoretically-based and highly effective  treatment for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related depression, anxiety, and anger. PE falls under the category of "exposure-based therapy" and is supported by scientific studies which reflect its positive impact on patient symptoms.
Exposure-based therapies focus on confronting the harmless cues/triggers of trauma/stress in order to unpair them from the feelings of anxiety and stress. Prolonged exposure is a flexible therapy that can be modified to fit the needs of individual clients. It is specifically designed to help clients psychologically process traumatic events and reduce trauma-induced psychological disturbances. Prolonged exposure produces clinically significant improvement in about 80% of patients with chronic PTSD.
Over years of testing and development, prolonged exposure has evolved into an adaptable program of intervention to address the needs of varied trauma survivors. In addition to reducing symptoms of PTSD, prolonged exposure instills confidence and a sense of mastery, improves various aspects of daily functioning, increases the ability to cope with courage when facing stress, and improves the ability to discriminate safe and unsafe situations.
In 2001, Prolonged Exposure for PTSD received an Exemplary Substance Abuse Prevention Program Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Prolonged exposure was selected by SAMHSA and the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention as a Model Program for national dissemination.
PTSD is characterized by the re-experiencing of the traumatic event through intrusive and upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, and strong emotional and physiological reactions triggered by reminders of the trauma. Most individuals with PTSD try to ward off the intrusive symptoms and avoid the trauma-reminders, even when those reminders are not inherently dangerous. To address the traumatic memories and triggers that are reminders of the trauma, the core components of exposure programs for the disorder are:
- Imaginal exposure, revisiting the traumatic memory, repeated recounting it aloud, and processing the revisiting experience
- In vivo exposure, the repeated confrontation with situations and objects that cause distress but are not inherently dangerous
The goal of this treatment is to promote processing of the trauma memory and to reduce distress and avoidance evoked by the trauma reminders. Additionally, individuals with emotional numbing and depression are encouraged to engage in enjoyable activities, even if these activities do not cause fear or anxiety but have dropped out the person's life due to loss of interest.
The imaginal exposure typically occurs during the therapy session and consists of retelling the trauma to the therapist. For the in vivo exposure, the clinician works with the client to establish a fear and avoidance hierarchy and typically assigns exposures to these list items as homework progressively. The therapist may also record the session and ask the patient to continue to complete in vivo exercises on their own time with the help of the recording. Both components work by facilitating emotional processing so that the problematic traumatic memories and avoidances habituate (desensitize) and are better tolerated. Randomized control trials reflect that only 10–38% of PTSD patients who take part in PE therapy terminate treatment before their program is complete (generally after at least 8 sessions).
Practitioners throughout the United States and many other countries currently use prolonged exposure to successfully treat survivors of varied traumas including rape, assault, child abuse, combat, motor vehicle accidents, and disasters. Prolonged exposure has been beneficial for those suffering from co-occurring PTSD and substance abuse when combined with substance abuse treatment. Studies have also reflected that prolonged exposure therapy aids patients who suffer from both PTSD and borderline personality disorder when the treatment is coupled with dialectical behavior therapy. Some were concerned that PE would negatively affect the treatment of patients with substance abuse disorder (SUD) as purposefully and intentionally exposing them to their reminders and triggers may worsen their state; however, randomized control trial studies exist which indicate that there are no negative effects of using PE for patients with SUD. Conducted studies have reflected positively on the effectiveness of PE. For example, in the Netherlands, patients responded better to PE than to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment. 6 month follow ups revealed that PE had also lessened psychotic and schizophrenic issues. Furthermore, the symptoms of in a small group of female methadone users in Israel had decreased after PE treatment. PE therapy was also found to be superior to supportive therapy in female veterans with PTSD in a randomized controlled trial.
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- Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD: Emotional Processing of Traumatic Experiences, Therapist Guide by Edna B. Foa, Elizabeth A. Hembree, Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, March 2007, Oxford University Press, "Treatments that work".
- Reclaiming Your Life From a Traumatic Experience, Workbook, Barbara Olasov Rothbaum, Edna B. Foa, Elizabeth A. Hembree, March 2007, Oxford University Press, "Treatments that work".
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorders SAMHSA Model Programs.
- Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, University of Pennsylvania Edna B. Foa, PhD, Director.
- Beyond the manual: The insider's guide to Prolonged Exposure therapy for PTSD E.A. Hembree, S.A.M. Rauch and E.B. Foa. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice (2003) 10:22–30.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Paula P. Schnurr, Matthew J. Friedman, Charles C. Engel, Edna B. Foa, et al. Journal of the American Medical Association, February 28, 2007; 297: 820–30. "Prolonged exposure is an effective treatment for PTSD in female veterans and active-duty military personnel. It is feasible to implement prolonged exposure across a range of clinical settings."
- Treatment of PTSD: An Assessment of The Evidence, Institute of Medicine, October 17, 2007. "The committee reviewed 53 studies of pharmaceuticals and 37 studies of psychotherapies used in PTSD treatment and concluded that because of shortcomings in many of the studies, there is not enough reliable evidence to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of most treatments. There are sufficient data to conclude that exposure therapies—such as exposing individuals to a real or surrogate threat in a safe environment to help them overcome their fears—are effective in treating people with PTSD. But the committee emphasized that its findings should not be misread to suggest that any PTSD treatment ought to be discontinued or that only exposure therapies should be used to treat PTSD."
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