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What is Prolonged Exposure for PTSD?

Chad Wetterneck, PhD, explains what prolonged exposure is and how it is helpful for treating PTSD.

Featured Doctor: Chad Wetterneck, PhD, clinical supervisor, PTSD partial hospitalization program

Wetterneck: There's a whole theory behind prolonged exposure, which is a cognitive behavioral therapy, and the theory is emotional processing theory. Basically, what that says is there are parts of our brain that are responsible for learning and memory. Our brain's job is to try to survive and thrive, and if we're surviving, then we're allowed to thrive as well. But experiencing trauma is more likely to focus those resources in our brain on only surviving, so those parts of our brain become much more allocated to trying to recognize any threats that are present, or will actually see threats that are present when none are really there, or overestimate how bad those threats might be if there is a threat present. Really, our mind's job of trying to protect us and not have the event happen again, but it ends up using all of our available resources to try to survive instead of thrive.

Prolonged exposure helps us get back in contact; in order to change these experiences and add a thriving component, instead only trying to survive, we need to actually be able to reconnect with the event itself.  We won't be able to learn anything new unless we actually can access the fear. Then we need to introduce new information that will not be in line with what the fear tells us is important about the world or our surroundings. We need to be able to know that there's more information out there, that there is safety in the current environment and not just to expect that the worst is going to happen. Most people that complete the program do show significant symptom reduction. It's sometimes about two-thirds of the people who actually no longer meet the diagnosis of PTSD, so it's been one of the most well validated treatments for PTSD that exists in our treatment community today.

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