Exposure Therapy for OCD

Understanding How Exposure Therapy Works is Key to Successful Treatment

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Although there are a variety of behavioral therapies for treating OCD, almost all of them focus on exposing you to those things that you fear most, such as germs or an upsetting thought.

While behavior therapies can be very effective, only two-thirds of patients complete treatment. Often, this occurs because patients are unwilling to experience the intense distress that can accompany an exposure exercise.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, many patients do not fully understand the rationale behind exposure-based treatments, and thus have trouble sticking with it when things get tough. Understanding exposure therapy can help improve its chance of success rate.

Habituation: The Backbone of Exposure Therapy

Exposure-based treatments take advantage of a natural process called habituation. Habituation occurs when a person stops responding or paying attention to a stimulus, such as a thought, object, place, person or action, with repeated exposure.

Everyday life is full of examples of habituation. For instance, when people first move to a new neighborhood, they may be aggravated by the noise of a busy highway that runs near their house. However, with each passing day the noise from the highway fades into the background until it is no longer even noticed. In this example, the person has become habituated to the sound of the highway.

Exposure-based behavior therapies work by promoting habituation to things that are feared by creating opportunities to unlearn dangerous or threatening associations.

Avoidance Reinforces Fear

At the same time, exposure-based therapies reduce avoidance, which reinforces fearful thoughts. This is important because avoiding things we are afraid of sends a very powerful message to our brains that there really is good reason to fear such things and that we do not have the skills to cope with them.

Let's look at a practical example to see how exposure works to promote habituation.

An Example of Avoidance

Imagine that you have a fear of dogs. Now picture yourself on a sidewalk as someone approaches you with their dog. As the dog approaches your anxiety will start to rise. If you run away, your anxiety will subside immediately but you will be teaching yourself that you cannot handle dogs, that the distress dogs cause you is intolerable and that avoidance is the only way to stay safe. Avoidance would keep you stuck being afraid of dogs forever, as you would never get a chance to unlearn this fear and challenge these beliefs.

An Example of Habituation

On the other hand, if you did not run away but instead let the dog come up to you, your anxiety would likely get higher than you are used to, for longer than you are used to. However, with time, and provided the unlikely possibility that the dog did not bite you, your anxiety would decrease through the natural process of habituation.

If you met this dog on the sidewalk every day for a month without incident, your brain would continue to unlearn its fear of dogs and your level of anxiety would decrease.

At the same time, what distress you did experience would disappear more and more quickly. Eventually, you would feel no distress at all when encountering the dog. You might even enjoy spending time with him. In short, you would be habituated to the dog.

Using Habituation and Exposure in Treatment for OCD

Exposure exercises in behavior therapy for OCD operate on the same principles as those illustrated in the above example. Essentially, patients are exposed to feared objects, such as a contaminated door handle or fearful thoughts, like a loved one dying in a car crash, over and over again until their anxiety has decreased.

Patients are prevented from engaging in rituals or compulsions during the exposure. Rituals are a form of avoidance that prevent you from unlearning your fear and realizing that you can, in fact, cope with the anxiety caused by obsessions. As you are repeatedly exposed to the thing you are afraid of and no negative consequences occur, your fear will begin to disappear.

Exposure Therapy Takes Patience and Courage

Of course, as in the example of the dog, such exposures require you to tolerate your anxiety being higher than you are used to, for longer than you are used to. However, once this short-term discomfort passes, in the long term your fear will subside and you will no longer need to engage in the rituals or avoidance that dominate your life.

Exposure-based therapies offer a simple and effective way to reduce symptoms of OCD, but they require courage and you have to be willing to give them a chance to work.

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