How Exposure Therapy Works as a Treatment for PTSD

Exposure therapy — asking patients with PTSD to close their eyes, imagine themselves back in that traumatic situation, and retell their story — is inherently difficult for people with PTSD, but confronting fears can also be the key to the cure.

See more video clips with Dr. Michael Roy.

[Dr. Michael Roy] Exposure therapy actually asks the individual with PTSD to confront their fears— confront their traumatic memories. The most common way of doing that is called imaginal exposure. That's "All right, close your eyes, picture you're back there— the bomb goes off— tell me—first person—like it's happening now— what do you see, smell, hear, feel?" You're kind of re-living this trauma, which is inherently difficult to do. One of the defining features of PTSD is avoiding any reminders of the trauma. So you're asking somebody to repeatedly re-live their trauma. Not surprisingly, a lot of people just say, "Look I can't do that. I'm trying, but I just—I can't." "I'm not going to be able to do this." For those who are able to do it, what that allows is to then explore— "You're sweating more as you recall this. When else do you feel this way? Let's try to work on some techniques to help you to not react in that way." By having them come in session after session, the therapist can kind of work through those physical and psychological reactions and help to adapt them so they have more productive responses. That actually works incredibly well for those who are able to do it. I'd say 75%-80% or more are cured. It's a lasting cure. Symptoms don't tend to come back. But maybe half—as many as half—just can't do it. They can't get into that.
Posted on BrainLine May 28, 2013.

Produced by Victoria Tilney McDonough, Justin Rhodes, and Erica Queen, BrainLine.