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What Are the Pros and Cons of Exposure Therapy PTSD?

By T. Carrier
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a recognized mental illness that can affect individuals from any region or walk of life. Several therapeutic interventions have attempted to treat this problem, including exposure therapy. This approach is a scientifically validated and relatively simple process, and it is often invaluable in helping individuals conquer overpowering fears. The lack of counseling analysis is a valid concern relating to exposure therapy PTSD, however. Use of memory recall techniques that could cause a setback represent a potential con as well.

Psychiatric organizations have detailed the major signs of PTSD. Symptoms manifest following a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. Common roots of PTSD include wartime combat, witnessing a violent crime, and physical or sexual assault. These experiences foster an emotional state in which intense flashbacks to the event occur, causing escalating emotional responses. The individual is also more highly sensitized to normal stimuli.

Fear is a guiding emotion of individuals with PTSD, and these fears can lead to avoidance of certain situations. Avoidance may range from refusing to visit the location where the event happened to the individual removing himself or herself from professional or social activities. Exposure therapy PTSD can directly confront the issue of avoidance.

Confrontation is in fact the basic principle behind exposure therapy. This intervention is a behavioral approach aimed at changing the individual’s behavior, and ultimately, his or her thoughts about the behavior. In the case of PTSD, a therapist might accompany a crime witness to the scene of the crime, for example. If an individual has been avoiding romantic relationships because of a sexual assault, on the other hand, the therapist might encourage casual dating. Thus, one of the primary benefits of exposure therapy PTSD is its usefulness in helping individuals overcome their fears: fears that feed the emotional grip of PTSD.

Exposure therapy PTSD is both a streamlined and effective approach, according to advocates. Confronting a fear is a simple task physically if not necessarily emotionally. Behavioral therapies like exposure therapy therefore tend to take less time and resources than more involved talk-based analytical approaches. Scientific evidence suggests the therapies produce valid results as well. Exposure therapy has been used as a successful treatment for phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and a wide range of other ailments in addition to PTSD.

The seeming simplicity of the process, however, may be one of its chief drawbacks. Individuals who have experienced a trauma usually have a range of complex thoughts and emotions. Talking through these issues may be a needed cathartic outlet that is largely absent in many forms of exposure therapy PTSD. This problem may be alleviated in combined cognitive-behavioral approaches, which seek to merge the behavioral aspect of the therapy with techniques that allow an individual to evaluate and reassess negative thoughts and feelings.

Imaginal exposure is another potentially adverse aspect of exposure therapy for PTSD. This involves reliving and replaying feared thoughts and memories in an individual’s mind. Some critics may argue that this component of exposure therapy too closely resembles the life-like flashbacks that emotionally cripple many PTSD patients. Forcing a traumatized soldier to relive scenes of death and mutilation, for example, could possibly do more harm than good.

A therapist specifically trained in exposure therapy may counteract some of these negative effects. Flooding exposure techniques that expose the patient to a feared stimuli for long and uninterrupted periods of time may be replaced with a systematized desensitization approach that gradually works the patient up to intense exposure. In addition, a trained therapist can guide the patient in pre-session relaxation techniques that could help ease state of mind.

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