What Is Exposure And Response Prevention?

What Is Exposure And Response Prevention?

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a pattern of unwanted thoughts or fears (obsessions) that cause an individual to perform repetitive behaviors (compulsions). These thought patterns and behaviors negatively impact a person’s daily activities and quality of life in significant ways. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that has been found to be an effective treatment for OCD.

What Is Exposure And Response Prevention?

ERP is an example of an evidence-based treatment. ERP intentionally exposes individuals to thoughts, images, objects, or situations that trigger obsessive thoughts and guides them through the experience in a more workable way – helping folks practice better tolerating their emotional discomfort and experiment with new behaviors as alternatives to their compulsions.

While the idea of putting ourselves in a triggering situation may make us feel anxious, this work is pursued as part of a structured treatment moving at a pace experienced as safe by the patient. This work represents an opportunity to practice giving in less frequently to compulsive behaviors. Over time, this practice of being more comfortable being uncomfortable tends to produce decreased anxiety and a changed relationship with the obsessions generated by one’s mind. This changed relationship with one’s thoughts also reduces the urge to engage in compulsive behaviors.

Your Anxiety Is An Alarm System

The experience of anxiety can be conceptualized as an effort by the nervous system to keep us safe. For example, if we are alone in a parking garage late at night and notice movement in a dark corner our nervous system will perhaps generate some anxiety to alert us to potential danger. For folks working on their relationship with obsessions and compulsions, this alarm system is revved up thereby generating alerts that are out of proportion to one’s present-moment experience. Each time we give in to these anxious thoughts by performing a behavior to help ourselves feel more comfortable in the moment we inadvertently reinforce a false reality of having been in some serious danger. By helping us learn to tolerate emotional discomfort and not employ behaviors to feel better in the short-term, ERP supports the delivery of different signals to the nervous system – ones of safety and that all is well.

Working with a skilled psychologist, therapist, or counselor experienced in delivery of ERP can help folks develop a more effective relationship with anxious thoughts. If you are interested in further exploring concerns about your relationship with your thoughts and behaviors, I invite you to call or email me to get started working together. Telehealth appointments are available.


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