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What is Exposure and Response Prevention?

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  • Written By: Patti Kate
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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Exposure and response prevention refers to a treatment to help manage, control and potentially cure certain psychological disorders. This method is typically used by psychotherapists or psychologists, but can also be self-taught with proper knowledge. In this form of treatment, the patient is exposed to whatever issues are causing him problems in an attempt to recondition himself. The idea is to help the patient overcome issues by facing them without having the option to withdraw.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is one condition that has been addressed with exposure and response prevention therapy. With this disorder, severe compulsions over which the patient may obsess can control his life to the point that he is not able to fully function. Learning how to control the compulsions and obsessive behavior is often the most frustrating aspect of managing OCD. With exposure and response prevention, a patient learns how to confront his obsessions and deal with them constructively.

The first major step in exposure and response prevention is for the patient to place himself in a situation that typically causes him fear, obsession, or some type of problem in his everyday life. Faced with the situation, he is then not permitted to act upon his normal negative response. This technique is generally done under professional supervision for best results.

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An example of OCD would be a patient who exhibits a repetitive behavior such as checking a locked door repeatedly before walking away. With exposure and responsive prevention, this patient will learn to be comfortable locking the door just once. Despite the compulsion to turn around and check the door more times, he will force himself to walk away and not look back. The patient may not be successful in the early stages, and it may take several attempts to acquire new behavioral patterns. Often a patient with OCD may not be able to walk away or ignore his compulsions and obsessive behaviors. In such a case, he will need the intervention from a professional.

Exposure and response prevention may also be used to treat other psychological disorders, such as phobias. Individuals who suffer from social phobia, which manifests in extreme cases of anxiety when faced with social situations, may benefit from this form of therapy. A patient facing challenges when put into a social situation, such as meeting new people, often can become so fearful that the anxiety can become emotionally crippling.

Behavioral therapy involved with exposure and response prevention will place the patient in the scenario that causes distress. If the individual normally reacts by exhibiting signs of panic and running away, those actions will be restricted. This may be conducted by blocking the person's path or with another obstacle. While this method may seem harsh to some, it can be an effective means of treatment for many patients.

In most extreme causes of psychological disorders, exposure and response prevention may not be successful. Some cases may require more extensive therapy techniques and medication or anti-anxiety drugs. A trained professional can determine when further intervention is necessary for recovery.

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