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Prolonged exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder: a review of evidence and dissemination Expert Rev. Neurother.
11(8), 1151–1163 (2011)
Carmen P McLean1 and Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a highly prevalent, often chronic and disabling psychiatric
disorder that is associated with significant adverse health and life consequences. Fortunately, there is compel ing evidence that cognitive–behavioral therapies, notably exposure therapies,
1Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, University of Pennsylvania,
are effective in reducing PTSD symptomology relative to waiting list and active control conditions.
3535 Market Street, 6th Floor,
Prolonged exposure is a specific exposure therapy program that is considered a first-line evidence-
Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
based treatment for PTSD. Unfortunately, barriers to treatment dissemination prevent the majority
†Author for correspondence:
of individuals with PTSD from receiving evidence-based treatment. Strategies to increase the
availability of treatment and boost the efficiency of exposure therapy are now being examined.
#"4 s DISSEMINATION s EXPOSURE s 043$ s TRAUMA
This article describes the current status of treat-
beliefs and expectations about safety, physical
ment efficacy for post-traumatic stress disorder integrity, trust and justice . Examples of poten-(PTSD) and highlights the most important issues tially traumatizing events (PTEs) include direct related to developing and delivering effective care life threats, physical injury, observing violence or to those in need. We first briefly discuss the phe-
extreme suffering, and sexual assault. Although
nomenology and epidemiology of PTSD, and PTEs are extraordinary, they are not rare. More then provide a conceptual framework for under-
than half of all US adults (51% of women and
standing the etiology and treatment of PTSD. 60% of men) are exposed to at least one PTE To this end, we will review relevant principles during their lifetime . Despite the ubiquity of learning theory and discuss Foa and Kozak's of exposure to PTEs, most individuals follow a emotional processing theory [1,2] to explain the trajectory of naturally recovery . However, a mechanisms of exposure-based treatments that salient and often silent minority do not recover are involved in ameliorating PTSD symptoms. and go on to develop chronic PTSD [6,7].
We will focus on reviewing evidence for pro-
According to the National Comorbidity
longed exposure (PE), a specific exposure therapy Survey, the lifetime prevalence rate of PTSD program for the treatment of PTSD that has been is 8% . A more recent epidemiological study supported by the greatest number of studies to found lifetime prevalence rates of 3.4% in men date. Next, we will present an overview of PE, and 8.5% in women . Certain groups are at including a detailed description of the key compo-
greater risk for developing PTSD: service mem-
nents of treatment. Finally, we will outline major bers exposed to a war zone , individuals with barriers to the effective dissemination of evidence-
severe mental illness , emergency medical
based treatment and discuss the most promising technicians, police, firefighters, and members strategies for circumventing these barriers.
of communities or geographical regions affected by natural and man-made disasters . For
Phenomenology & epidemiology
example, a reana lysis of the National Vietnam
Veterans Readjustment Study found lifetime
An event is considered potentially traumatizing prevalence rates of 18.7% for war-related if it is unpredictable, uncontrollable and involves PTSD . Similarly, recent research has shown a severe or catastrophic violation of fundamental that 16.6% of military personnel returning
2011 Expert Reviews Ltd
Review McLean & Foa
from Iraq or Afghanistan screen positive for PTSD . Rates of for PTSD typically involves ‘imaginal' exposure to the patient's PTSD among women exposed to sexual assault have been esti-
memory of the trauma, as well as ‘in vivo
' exposure, or real-
mated at 36% . Thus, disseminating empirically supported life exposure, to various reminders of the trauma. As emotional prevention and treatment programs is especially critical for these processing theory suggests, fear activation alone is not sufficient at-risk groups.
for therapeutic change. Information that is incompatible with
Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by intrusive the fear structure (i.e., that disconfirms the CS–US expectan-
re-experiencing symptoms, avoidance behaviors and elevated cies) must be incorporated into memory in order for corrective arousal . In the absence of effective treatment, PTSD can learning to occur. become a chronic and disabling disorder that is frequently comor-
Many modern learning theories of fear acquisition [26,27] also
bid with major depression, other anxiety disorders and substance recognize the role of cognitive processes, such as the control-abuse disorders , and is associated with low quality of life [16,17]. lability and predictability of the traumatic event, and better Therefore, it is encouraging that effective interventions have been account for observational and informational fear learning, as developed that can reduce the incidence of chronic PTSD.
well as directly experienced events, than the simple Pavlovian
Our understanding of the processes that govern the develop-
model . Furthermore, it is now recognized that exposure is not
ment and treatment of PTSD has been heavily influenced by an ‘unlearning' or ‘forgetting' of feared associations. Rather, it emotional processing theory [1,2]. Together with models of extinc-
involves new inhibitory learning and the formation of new inhibi-
tion learning, emotional processing theory provides a theoreti-
tory associations that disrupt the CS–US expectancy [29,30]. The
cal framework for understanding the psychopathology of PTSD original fear memory (CS–US) now competes with the extinction and the mechanisms underlying the most effective treatment memory (CS–no-US) to influence the behavioral response. The approaches. There are many other theories of PTSD, including outcome of this competition is highly dependent on environ-cognitive theory , schema theories (for example, see Horowitz, mental conditions and is sensitive to changes in temporal and 1986 ), and multiple representation theories [20,21]. In this arti-
cle, we briefly describe basic extinction models of pathological
Thus, even following successful exposure therapy, the fear
anxiety, then provide an overview of emotional processing theory response may return in contexts where the corrected memory as it pertains to PTSD. We focus on emotional processing theory is not activated to inhibit the original fear memory. Return because it incorporates the role of extinction processes, as well as of fear observations confirm the integrity of the original fear the role of negative cognitions that typify PTSD. A comprehen-
network  and are often regarded as experimental models for
sive account of other theoretical models of PTSD can be found clinical relapse [32,33]. Accordingly, memory for extinction is elsewhere .
viewed as new and fragile inhibitory learning, directly compet-ing against a strong, excitatory fear memory. Corrective learn-
Extinction theories of exposure therapy
ing is generally well retained following exposure therapy for
Behavioral models of PTSD highlight the role of Pavlovian con-
PTSD, as evidenced by low rates of post-treatment relapse .
ditioning in fear acquisition. Accordingly, the mechanism under-
However, an important clinical issue for the treatment of PTSD
lying exposure therapy in the treatment of chronic PTSD has is understanding how treatment can strengthen new learning been linked to the process of extinction. A basic assumption of efficiently to promote durable treatment effects. Conducting the Pavlovian model is that associative learning underlies both exposures repeatedly and in multiple contexts is a standard the development and treatment of excessive fear. In the applica-
treatment procedure that is designed to reduce renewal effects.
tion of this model to PTSD, the traumatic event is considered Additional strategies of strengthening the associations learned
an unconditioned stimulus (US), which has become associated during exposure therapy will be discussed in the following sec-
with a variety of non-threatening conditioned stimuli (CS; e.g., tion, including paradigms (e.g., introducing pharmacological
smells, sights, sounds and people). When an association between a agents) to enhance memory consolidation of the learning that
neutral stimuli and the traumatic event is formed in memory, later occurs during exposure therapy.
exposure to the neutral event will activate the representation of
the trauma, triggering a fear response, including re-experiencing Emotional processing theory
symptoms, physiological reactivity and avoidance behavior.
Emotional processing theory proposes that fear is represented in
In contrast to fear acquisition, extinction learning occurs memory as a cognitive structure that includes information about
through repeatedly presenting a CS in the absence of the US, the fear stimuli, the fear responses and their meaning [1,2]. For which results in a reliable decrease in fear responding to the CS example, a veteran with PTSD may have a fear structure that due to changes in CS–US expectancy [23,24] (for
includes representations of stimuli such as loud sudden noises, and
tive processes, see ). Exposure therapy for PTSD is based on representations of responses such as rapid heartbeat and muscle the principles of fear learning and shares procedural similarities tension. Of particular importance is the meaning assigned to the with extinction training. Treatment involves repeatedly confront-
stimuli, such as the meaning of a loud noise as ‘dangerous' or the
ing feared thoughts, images, objects, situations or activities in meaning of rapid heartbeat and muscle tension as ‘I am afraid'. the absence of the expected negative outcome, in order to reduce The stimuli, responses and their meaning are inter-related within pathological fear, anxiety and other symptoms. Exposure therapy the fear structure such that inputs matching any one part of the
Expert Rev. Neurother.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD
structure will activate the entire structure. Thus, hearing a car treatment for PTSD, based on the tenets of emotional processing backfire will activate the veteran's fear structure, including the theory, which accomplishes each of these therapeutic aims. The meaning associated with this representation (‘danger') and the procedures used in prolonged exposure to promote fear activation behavioral and physiological fear responses.
and modification of erroneous cognitions are explained in detail
Foa and Kozak described the distinguishing features of normal in the following section.
and pathological fear structures . Following the previous exam-
ple, the veteran's fear structure may be considered normal if it is Prolonged exposure therapy
restricted to settings that are actually dangerous, such as an active Exposure therapy refers to a general strategy for reducing excessive
war zone. In this situation, activation of the fear structure will or unrealistic anxiety through confronting anxiety-provoking or
prompt adaptive responses, such as readying a weapon and moni-
avoided thoughts, situations, activities and people that are not
toring for enemy threats. By contrast, the fear structure can be realistically threatening. There are several variants of exposure considered pathological if it is activated by objectively safe stimuli, therapy, including imaginal exposure, in vivo
exposure, system-such as fireworks or thunderstorms. In other words, a pathological atic desensitization and flooding. Interoceptive exposure, which fear structure is characterized by erroneous associations that lead involves the deliberate induction of physiological symptoms to overgeneralization of fear responding to objectively safe situa-
that mimic anxiety, is primarily used in the treatment of panic
tions and stimuli, as well as excessive fear responding. Emotional disorder  and will not be discussed here. processing theory proposes that in order to successfully reduce
Prolonged exposure is a specific exposure therapy program that
pathological fear, treatment must first activate the fear structure, has been the subject of considerable research in the treatment of and second provide new information that is incompatible with the PTSD. PE is comprised of three main components: first, in vivo
existing pathological fear structure. As described later, exposure exposure to trauma reminders, typically as homework; second, therapy effectively accomplishes both of these objectives. The fear imaginal exposure to the memory of the traumatic event, both structure is activated by helping the client to approach the feared in session and as homework; and third, processing of imaginal situation (in real life or in imagination). Once activated in a safe exposure, as well as two minor components: psychoeducation setting, corrective learning occurs through integration of informa-
about the nature of trauma and trauma reactions, including a
tion that disconfirms the feared outcomes. Following successful clear rationale for the use of exposure therapy, and training in exposure treatment, there are two fear structures (one pathological controlled breathing.
and one normal), either of which may be retrieved and activated depending on their associative strength with the contextual cues.
The application of emotional processing theory to PTSD  The current PE program for treatment of PTSD consists of
helps to account for natural recovery following trauma, the between eight and 15 individual 90-min sessions. In the first meet-development and maintenance of PTSD, and for the treatment ing, the clinician provides a detailed rationale for exposure therapy of PTSD. Natural recovery occurs when the fear structure is and explains that PTSD is maintained by two key factors. The first repeatedly activated in the absence of feared consequences. As factor is avoidance of thoughts and images related to the trauma such, individuals who revisit the memory of the trauma, engage and avoidance of trauma reminders. The clinician explains that with trauma-related thoughts and feelings, share the experience although avoidance is effective in reducing anxiety in the short and reactions with others, and approach reminders of the trauma term, it maintains PTSD by preventing opportunities to emotion-in daily life will successfully recover from a traumatic event . ally process and integrate the trauma memory. The second factor By contrast, individuals who avoid engaging with the traumatic is the unhelpful and often erroneous beliefs that have developed memory and avoid trauma-related stimuli are at risk for PTSD in the wake of the trauma. For example, many trauma survivors because avoidance thwarts opportunities to obtain corrective hold the distorted belief that the world is extremely dangerous information that would disconfirm feared consequences.
and that the survivor himself or herself is completely incompetent.
Successful treatment of PTSD, therefore, involves repeated Therefore, PE aims to alter distorted beliefs by providing oppor-
exposure to trauma-related stimuli. This exposure accomplishes tunities to obtain corrective information that disconfirms these a number of therapeutic goals. First, activating the fear struc-
beliefs via experientially learning (i.e., exposure).
ture in the absence of feared outcomes corrects exaggerated
In the first session, the clinician and patient must determine
probability estimates of harm. Second, repeated retelling of the which trauma to focus on during imaginal exposure. For patients trauma memory helps to organize the narrative in memory and who have a history of multiple traumas, this ‘index trauma' is also helps to strengthen the distinction between remembering selected by determining which event is currently causing the the trauma and the experience of the trauma, which alters the greatest distress and dysfunction. Often, this will be the event that associations between the traumatic memory and threat mean-
is associated with the most frequent and upsetting re-experiencing
ing. Third, exposure to the trauma memory helps individuals symptoms. The index trauma is selected during either the initial reevaluate negative trauma-related cognitions about themselves evaluation of the patient or the first session as part of the trauma and the world (e.g., ‘I am totally incompetent' and ‘the world is history interview. Finally, the first session also involves teach-completely dangerous') that are thought to be at the core of the ing patients a slow-breathing relaxation technique that they are fear structure for PTSD . Prolonged exposure is an effective encouraged to practice on a daily basis as homework.
Review McLean & Foa
The second session involves an in-depth discussion of common hierarchy includes a range of items spanning from ones that gen-
reactions to trauma, which provides the patient with a framework erate moderate anxiety to those that generate the most anxiety a for understanding their symptoms. Specifically, reviewing com-
patient can imagine. In vivo
exposure is generally conducted in a
mon reactions can help the patient to realize that their difficulties stepwise fashion, beginning with situations that are moderately are recognized as PTSD symptoms, that the therapist is familiar fear-provoking before moving up the hierarchy to more chal-with these symptoms and that PE is geared towards alleviating lenging situations. This graduated approach helps patients build these symptoms. Next, the clinician introduces in vivo
exposure confidence and self-efficacy through early success experiences and and works with the patient to construct a hierarchy by listing is widely considered more palatable to patients than beginning and rank ordering previously avoided situations based on how with the most feared situations on the hierarchy. distressed the patient would be if he or she confronted the situa-
The duration of exposure to the feared situation is an impor-
tion. After creating the in vivo
hierarchy, specific in vivo
assign- tant factor in treating PTSD. The exposure must last long ments are selected for homework. During each in vivo
exercise, enough for corrective learning to occur (i.e., for the patient to the patient is instructed to remain in the situation for 45–60 min associate the feared stimulus with safety). A duration of 30 and or until his or her anxiety decreases by at least 50%.
60 min appears to be sufficient for good outcomes . Although
In the third session, the clinician presents a detailed rationale within-session reductions in fear are no longer considered criti-
for imaginal exposure, and then spends the majority of the ses-
cal for improvement , habituation of fear may be important
sion conducting imaginal exposure (a45 min). The exposure for patients who hold erroneous beliefs about the consequences is immediately followed by 15–20 min of post-exposure ‘pro-
of anxiety (e.g., that it will be unbearable or will last forever).
cessing', which includes discussion of the patient's experiences Antony and Swinson provide additional guidelines on how to during the imaginal exposure and focuses on the lessons learned conduct effective exposures . from the experience. Imaginal exposure is conducted in each
Patients are instructed to start doing exposures on their own
subsequent session. Patients are also instructed to listen to an between sessions at the start of therapy. In contrast to exposure audio recording of the imaginal exposure each day as part of therapy for other anxiety disorders, in vivo
exposures for PTSD their weekly homework.
are rarely conducted during sessions. One reason for this is prac-
The remainder of treatment (sessions 4–10) follows a standard tical: the types of situations that are typically feared by patients
agenda that begins with reviewing the preceding week's home-
with PTSD cannot easily be accessed or simulated within a clini-
work. Homework exposure exercises for the coming week are cian's office. A second reason is that conducting exposures inde-assigned at the end of the session. During the final treatment pendently for homework helps to minimize patients' tendency to session, the clinician and patient review progress, discuss lessons discount success experiences that occur during in-session expo-learned and make a plan for how the patient can maintain the sures. Third, exposure should occur wherever the patient's anxiety gains made during treatment. By the end of treatment, the patient ‘lives', in order to promote generalization and attenuate the risk of has often shifted their approach to managing PTSD symptoms contextual renewal (i.e., exposure to the CS in a different context from avoidance, which maintains fear, to confrontation of trauma than extinction elicits the extinguished fear response). reminders, which promotes recovery and mastery.
Evidence for the benefit of clinician assistance with exposure in
other anxiety disorders is mixed. Öst, Salkovskis and Hellström
Key component: in vivo exposure
found that clinician-guided exposure was superior to self-guided
exposure refers to real-life confrontation with feared exposure for spider phobias , whereas a study by Marks and stimuli. Trauma survivors often avoid places, people and objects colleagues with OCD patients yielded the reverse conclusion . that remind them of the trauma. While exposure to objectively Owing to the wide variety of feared situations typically observed unsafe situations is neither appropriate nor therapeutic, in vivo
in PTSD, there are practical considerations that limit the thera-exposure to feared situations for which there is a low probability pist's ability to provide guided exposure. In light of these limita-of actual harm is very beneficial in the treatment of PTSD. For tions, the most prudent approach is to supplement self-guided example, a veteran whose military truck was hit with an explo-
exposure by enlisting others, such as the patient's partner, friends
sive device while in Iraq may avoid driving. A reasonable goal of or family members, as needed. Including others can decrease the in vivo
exposure would be to help the patient resume driving. The level of expected distress associated with an exposure exercise and first step in implementing in vivo
exposure is to develop a list of is therefore a helpful strategy to modify difficulty of the in vivo
feared situations, rank ordered by their level of expected distress assignment. Clinician assistance with in vivo
exposures is war-(this is referred to as an exposure ‘hierarchy'). The patient and ranted if the patient is persistently having difficulty completing the clinician collaborate in generating a list of situations that the assignments independently. In such cases, the clinician should patient currently either avoids or endures with great discomfort. accompany the patient, if possible, in order to demonstrate the For each situation on the list, the patient then assigns a subjec-
process of exposure, help to troubleshoot any obstacles that arise
tive units of distress (SUDS) rating ranging from 0 to 100 as a and lend support. However, as clinician presence may serve as a means of rank ordering the situations. A SUDS of 0 indicates ‘safety behavior' for the patient, it is essential for the patient to no distress or anxiety at all, whereas a SUDS of 100 indicates realize that they can face feared situations and effectively manage the most distressed a person has ever been. A well-constructed their anxiety on their own.
Expert Rev. Neurother.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD
Safety behaviors refer to any behavior used during exposure to Key component: imaginal exposure
reduced anxiety (e.g., the presence of another person, medica-
As noted earlier, in imaginal exposure the patient imagines him-
tions or reassurance seeking). These behaviors (or mental pro-
self or herself reliving the traumatic experience. The imaginal
cesses) may interfere with successful exposure therapy because scene typically includes a detailed description of the traumatic patients who use safety behavior during an exposure mistakenly event, including the associated thoughts, feelings and physi-attribute the absence of feared outcomes to the use of the safety cal sensations. Revisiting the traumatic experience helps the behavior. The availability of safety behaviors has been shown to patient to emotionally process and organize his or her traumatic be detrimental to exposure therapy among phobic samples , memory. After providing a thorough rationale for the use of whereas explicit instruction to withdraw safety behaviors has been imaginal exposure in ameliorating PTSD symptoms, the clini-demonstrated to improve treatment outcomes . Assessing for cian instructs the patient to close his or her eyes and describe safety behaviors and instructing patients to withdraw from using out loud what happened during the trauma, while visualizing them is already standard protocol in PE . Although there is the event as vividly as possible. In order to facilitate emotional ample evidence that the use of safety behavior can interfere with engagement, the patient may be asked to use the present tense the progress of exposure therapy [46,47], there are also some data when describing the thoughts, emotions and sensory experi-to suggest that permitting some use of safety behaviors, espe-
ences that occurred during the traumatic event. Imaginal expo-
cially in the early stages of exposure therapy, can be facilitative sure is continued for a prolonged period (usually 30–45 min) in the treatment of specific phobias . Further work is needed and includes multiple repetitions of the memory if necessary. to examine therapeutic uses of safety behavior in the treatment Once begun, imaginal exposure is typically conducted in each of PTSD.
subsequent treatment session, as well as between sessions as homework by listening to an audio recording of the imaginal
How does in vivo exposure promote recovery from PTSD?
exposure on a daily basis.
Mirroring the process of natural recovery, in vivo
promotes recovery through activation of the fear structure How does imaginal exposure promote recovery
and the correction of erroneous probability estimates of harm. from PTSD?
Intentionally approaching reminders of the trauma presents There are several ways in which imaginal exposure is thought to
patients with information that disconfirms the pathological ele-
foster therapeutic change in PTSD. First, like in vivo
ments of the fear structure, thereby reducing PTSD symptoms. imaginal exposure promotes extinction of conditioned fear reac-In vivo
exposure gives patients the opportunity to test feared tions (i.e., habituation), thus reducing anxiety previously associ-consequences and incorporate more realistic information through ated with the trauma memory and correcting the patient's erro-experiential learning. In vivo
exposure also provides opportunities neous belief that anxiety will persist indefinitely in the absence for habituation as patients learn that when they remain in the of avoidance or escape. Patients learn that they can tolerate their feared situation for long enough, their anxiety will decrease on distress and that having anxiety does not result in ‘going crazy' its own. Approaching and remaining in feared situations prevents or ‘losing control'. This corrective learning alters negative per-negative reinforcement of avoidance behaviors, which are a key ceptions regarding lacking self-efficacy and self-control. Second, maintaining factor in PTSD. Successfully approaching feared the process of deliberately approaching the trauma memory pre-situations can also help patients to shift negative beliefs about vents negative reinforcement of avoidance strategies. Avoidance themselves by promoting a sense of mastery and courage. Indeed, of trauma memories and related reminders leads to an immediate a greater reduction in thoughts of incompetence and the level of decrease in distress. Although temporary, this decrease in distress danger in the world has been associated with a greater reduction reinforces the avoidance behaviors that maintain PTSD. Thus, by in PTSD symptoms .
approaching, rather than avoiding, the trauma memory, imaginal
Several studies have demonstrated the efficacy of in vivo
expo- exposure removes the primary barrier to emotional processing.
sure in the treatment of PTSD. A crossover study by Richards, Third, repeated imaginal reliving of the trauma promotes dif-Lovell and Marks evaluated the relative contributions of in vivo
ferentiation between remembering the trauma and being retrau-exposure and imaginal exposure and found that phobic avoidance matized. Patients with PTSD often report that thinking about was significantly reduced after four 60-min sessions of in vivo
the trauma makes them feel as if it is happening to them again at exposure plus homework . A randomized controlled study of that moment. Through repeated revisiting of the trauma in a safe, in vivo
exposure with and without cognitive restructuring (CR) therapeutic environment, imaginal exposure helps to strengthen found significant improvement among those assigned to a five-
the discrimination between cognitive representations of threat
session in vivo
exposure protocol compared with those assigned (e.g., memories of the trauma) and actual threat. Fourth, repeated to a relaxation condition . Both exposure alone and CR alone revisiting of the trauma memory helps patients to organize the were superior to relaxation; there was no additional benefit for traumatic memory into a more coherent narrative, which is asso-combining exposure and CR. Most recently, a randomized study ciated with symptom improvement . Fifth, imaginal exposure among earthquake survivors showed that a single session of self-
promotes differentiation between the traumatic experience and
directed in vivo
exposure lead to significant reductions in PTSD similar stimuli that have become associated with trauma. This symptoms compared with a waiting-list control .
differentiation helps patients to view the trauma as a specific
Review McLean & Foa
occurrence, thereby disconfirming the perception that the world How does processing promote recovery from PTSD?
is entirely dangerous and the perception that they are unable to Processing the imaginal exposure allows patients to articulate and
cope with stress (being incompetent).
integrate new information and insights into their memory. By
A number of studies have demonstrated the efficacy of imaginal explicitly focusing on details that are central to the erroneous cog-
exposure without in vivo
exposure in the treatment of PTSD. For nitions that are maintaining the patient's PTSD, processing helps example, there are several studies that found imaginal exposure patients to recognize unrealistic thoughts and beliefs, thereby pro-to be effective among male Vietnam veterans with PTSD [53–55] moting a more realistic perspective. Indeed, the study by Sloan and mixed-trauma civilians [56–58], and refugees and survivors of Telch suggests that procedures that help patients attend to the infor-torture [59,60].
mation that disconfirms their erroneous beliefs facilitate treatment outcome . Attending to patterns observed in the patient's SUDS
Key component: processing
ratings, either within or between sessions, encourages the patient to
Processing occurs immediately following the imaginal exposure consider the meaning of habituation and adjust their beliefs about and involves discussing the experience of revisiting the trauma the consequences of approaching feared stimuli. Highlighting the memory, with a focus on new learning and changed beliefs or patient's courage and ability to approach the traumatic memory and perspectives. In general, processing is less structured than other remain emotionally engaged during the revisiting helps to enhance components of PE. Following the imaginal exposure, clinicians the patient's sense of self-control and personal competence. In sum-should first provide positive feedback and acknowledge the mary, processing is an integral component of PE because it helps to patient's courage and willingness to approach painful memo-
foster the elaboration and consolidation of the new learning that
ries. Having monitored the patient's SUDS ratings periodically occurs during imaginal exposure.
(aevery 5 min) during the imaginal exposure, clinicians may
comment on any habituation that was observed either within or Evidence-based interventions for PTSD
between sessions. Open-ended questions allow patients to express Almost all evidence-based psychological interventions for PTSD
their thoughts and feelings about the imaginal exposure experi-
involve some discussion of, or exposure to, trauma-related stim-
ence, and discuss any insights that seem particularly important uli . Cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT) refers to a set of treat-or meaningful.
ment approaches that includes exposure techniques, as well as CR
There are two studies that provide indirect evidence for the and anxiety management. As a family of treatment approaches,
importance of processing to treatment outcomes. The first is CBT has been deemed the treatment approach of choice in clinical a study by Bryant and colleagues that found that adding CR practice guidelines for PTSD [63,64,201,202]. Specific evidence-based to exposure therapy led to superior outcomes compared with treatments for PTSD include cognitive therapy [42,65], stress inocu-exposure therapy without CR . The exposure therapy pro-
lation therapy [62,66], relaxation [42,67], eye movement desensitization
gram examined in this study included both in vivo
and imagi- and reprocessing [67,68], and supportive counseling [66,69].
nal exposure, but importantly, processing was excluded in order
Several specific CBTs for PTSD have received empirical sup-
to maximize the distinction between treatment conditions. port, including PE, cognitive processing therapy , cognitive ther-Unsurprisingly, the effect size of the exposure condition was apy , and stress inoculation therapy . Eye movement desensiti-lower than that typically observed in studies of exposure that zation retraining for PTSD has also been evaluated . Of these, PE include a processing component . In terms of the study aims, has been studied most broadly and extensively. We therefore focus the methodology does not provide a true test of the utility of add-
on the evidence for the efficacy of PE, but also acknowledge that
ing CR to the most effective exposure therapy program, although other CBTs have also demonstrated efficacy for PTSD in a smaller it does demonstrate that adding CR to a diminished version of number of studies. Treatments that are comprised of imaginal expo-exposure therapy is beneficial.
sure, but referred to as ‘CBT', ‘exposure-based' or ‘trauma-focused'
The importance of processing was also highlighted in a study treatment can be considered variants of the PE program. Thus, for
by Sloan and Telch that examined in vivo
exposure with claustro- ease of review, these treatments will be discussed together.
phobic patients with and without ‘guided threat reappraisal' .
Patients in the guided threat reappraisal condition were instructed Evidence for the efficacy of prolonged exposure
to focus on information relevant to the validity of the perceived To date, there have been 25 randomized controlled trials indicating
threat and to verbalize the disconfirmatory information obtained that PE is effective in reducing the array of PTSD symptoms [61,71–78].
during the exposure. Patients in this condition had significantly Exposure therapy is effective for acute and chronic PTSD [64,79] and
better outcomes than patients who were instructed to engage in gains are generally maintained at follow-ups of 1 year or longer .
a demanding cognitive load distraction task during the exposure. Furthermore, PE has been consistently associated with rapid change
This suggests that processing the exposure by articulating the and maintenance of large effect sizes over time [67,81].
disconfirmation helps patients attend to the lack of feared con-
Studies have demonstrated that PE leads to significantly
sequences that occurs during exposure, and facilitates treatment greater pre- to post-treatment reductions in PTSD symptomol-outcome by promoting the elaboration of the corrective learning. ogy when compared with a waiting-list control [55,62,66,68,81–83], Together, these two studies reinforce the importance of processing supportive counseling [34,56], relaxation [42,58,67] and treatment imaginal exposure in the treatment of PTSD.
as usual [53,54,84,85].
Expert Rev. Neurother.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD
A recent meta-ana lysis found a large effect size for PE compared Summary of the evidence
with the control condition at post-treatment and at follow-up The evidence in support of the efficacy of PE is extensive and (Hedges's g = 1.08), but no systematic differences between PE and robust. PE has been supported by the greatest number of studies, other active treatments . There are several other meta-analyses in a wide range of trauma populations, across a number of diverse that have examined the efficacy of exposure therapy in general, but cultures and by multiple research groups. No studies comparing have not examined PE specifically. For example, a large meta-ana-
PE with a different treatment have found evidence that another
lysis by Bradley and colleagues found that exposure therapy was treatment approach is more effective than PE in reducing the far more effective than wait-list control (effect size of comparison: symptoms of PTSD. Furthermore, studies examining combina-1.11–1.53) or supportive therapy (effect size of comparison: 0.83–
tion treatments (e.g., PE vs PE plus SIT or CR) have failed to find
1.01) . Meta-analyses have also found that exposure therapy is superiority of the combination treatments.
associated with lower dropout rates than pharmacotherapy, and
Thus, there is clearly sufficient scientific evidence to justify the
that CBT is equally effective as selective serotonin-reuptake inhibi-
widespread routine use of PE to target PTSD whenever possible.
tors in the short term , although long-term data are sparse. Indeed, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Practice Other meta-analyses focusing on the efficacy of specific treatments Guidelines specifically recommend the use of PE in the treatment for PTSD have shown that exposure therapy is more effective than of PTSD . Similarly, the recent comprehensive review and ‘non-trauma-focused' treatments or wait-list/control at reducing committee report from the Institute of Medicine of the National PTSD symptoms, but have not found significant differences in Academies stated that "the evidence is sufficient to conclude the outcomes among trauma-focused therapies [89–91].
efficacy of exposure therapies in the treatment of PTSD" . No such statement was made for any other treatment approach. This
Do additional intervention techniques increase the
conclusion is also consistent with practice guidelines published by
efficacy of PE?
the American Psychiatric Association , and the Departments
Some experts have suggested that treatment programs that include of Veterans Affairs and Defense . multiple techniques will be more efficacious than any single treat-ment approach in reducing the wide range of symptoms that char-
Dissemination of PE
acterize PTSD . Accordingly, most evidence-based treatment Regrettably, most people who suffer from PTSD do not receive programs for PTSD include several techniques such as exposure, appropriate treatment [4,97]. The stigma of PTSD remains a relaxation, CR and modeling . A number of studies have com-
significant barrier to effective care. Feelings of shame are often
pared PE with other evidence-based treatments. For example, Foa associated with PTSD  and can serve to discourage treatment and colleagues compared PE combined with stress inoculation seeking . For example, studies among military personnel training (SIT) with PE and SIT alone . Contrary to prediction, have found that many are unwilling to seek treatment and all three treatments performed equally well on most measures, believe that admitting to a psychological problem would be although PE alone yielded larger effect sizes on severity of PTSD, highly stigmatizing  and could potentially damage their depression and anxiety at post-treatment and follow-up.
military career . Despite these barriers to seeking treat-
A similarly designed study comparing PE alone, PE plus CR and ment, the number of individuals accessing care far exceeds the
wait-list also failed to find significant differences between the active number of trained clinicians available to meet this need. At treatments . Furthermore, there is evidence that patients with present, the availability of professionals who are trained in evi-severe trauma-related cognitions fare slightly worse when treated dence-based treatments for PTSD is woefully limited [102,103]. with PE plus CR than in PE alone. These findings are consistent Furthermore, several studies have shown that, when given the with previous reports [42,94], and suggest that combining separately option, individuals generally prefer exposure therapy over other efficacious treatments (e.g., PE/CR or PE/SIT) does not enhance types of treatment. For example, studies have shown that PE treatment outcome for PTSD. An exception to this conclusion is is the preferred treatment over medication (among women Bryant and colleagues' finding that adding CR to exposure therapy exposed to trauma  and among women with PTSD ), did improve outcome . However, as discussed earlier, the study and over other types of psychotherapy such as CBT and eye design precludes conclusions about PE because processing was movement desensitization and reprocessing (in analog samples intentionally excluded from the exposure condition.
of undergraduates ). Further research examining treatment
Although most studies comparing PE with other evidence-based acceptability in clinical samples is needed to enable a better
treatments have failed to find significant differences in treatment understanding of the low rates of treatment seeking and to outcomes, it should be noted that most have lacked sufficient inform dissemination strategies. power to detect the small differences in effect size that would
Fortunately, there is growing evidence that evidence-based treat-
be expected when comparing two effective evidence-based treat-
ments can be effectively disseminated. While much of this research
ments . Thus, although a large body of research supports the has focused on PE, dissemination studies have also examined other efficacy of PE, it is not known whether PE leads to significantly evidence-based treatments. For example, research by Gillespie, greater improvements than other evidence-based treatments or Duffy, Hackmann and Clark showed that community therapists whether additional treatment techniques may be identified that who received intensive training in cognitive therapy for PTSD and can augment the therapeutic effects of PE.
ongoing supervision were able to effectively administer treatment
Review McLean & Foa
in an open trial for PTSD . Similarly, a study by Neuner and One strategy commonly used in clinical practice to enhance efficacy colleagues showed that a manualized exposure treatment called is to extend treatment . Although extending treatment for partial narrative exposure therapy could be effectively delivered to refu-
responders appears to be an effective method of enhancing out-
gees in southern Uganda by lay counselors chosen from within comes, this strategy requires increased time and costs. Thus, we need the refugee community . While acknowledging these promis-
to develop ways of making treatments more effective and efficient.
ing results, we focus on the dissemination of PE. Furthermore, a
Furthermore, even optimally efficacious treatments are of limited
particular emphasis on the dissemination of PE appears to be war-
value if the majority of patients who could benefit from these treat-
ranted, given the evidence reviewed previously, which demonstrates ments do not have access to them. Given the enormous public health the consistency with which PE has been supported.
and societal costs associated with chronic PTSD , efficiency of
Recently, both the Department of Defense and the Department care delivery and the dissemination of evidence-based practices pres-
of Veterans Affairs (VA) initiated rollouts of two evidence-based ent some of the greatest challenges for the field. The need for widely treatments for PTSD: PE and cognitive processing therapy . available evidence-based treatments is more acute in light of the The aim of this program was to provide the VA with permanent large number of returning military personnel suffering from PTSD. capacity to train and supervise their mental health practitioners At present, the majority of therapists do not use evidence-based in the delivery of evidence-based treatments for PTSD in a fully treatments for PTSD, primarily owing to a lack of training. self-sufficient manner, without the need for ongoing outside
Widespread dissemination of evidence-based treatments will
instruction. In 2009 alone, a total of 968 clinicians were trained require substantial commitment from multiple systems (e.g., grad-to provide PE within the VA system, and an additional 269 were uate programs, professional organizations and healthcare delivery trained outside of the VA in coordination with the VA rollout. systems). Recently, there is evidence that top-down dissemination Despite these important training initiatives, effective dissemina-
strategies effectively train large number of mental health profes-
tion of exposure therapy for PTSD remains a significant chal-
sional to deliver evidence-based treatments for PTSD (e.g., VA
lenge. Exposure therapy is still not widely available or routinely roll-out). While large-scale training-based dissemination may be employed outside of specialty clinics and research settings.
effective, it is also costly, labor intensive and limited by the avail-
Another strategy for increasing the availability of evidence-based ability of experts. Future research will therefore need to address
treatment is to train community clinicians in the implementation the relative merits of different dissemination models, including
of PE. Research has shown that community-based clinicians can those that take advantage of advances in communication technol-
effectively implement PE for PTSD when provided with intensive ogy. There is a great need to develop a science for dissemination,
training and ongoing expert supervision . Although effective, including evidence-based methodology to develop, implement
this dissemination strategy is time intensive and limited by the and maintain evidence-based treatment delivery systems.
availability of experts to provide extended supervision. An alterna-
tive approach is to use a ‘train the trainers' model of increasing Five-year view
the number of centers with local expertise that can assist in the In the next 5 years, we expect to witness a growth of rigorous
training and supervision of new clinicians. For example, follow-
clinical research that will broaden and deepen our understanding
ing an intensive PE workshop provided by experts, a subgroup of the etiology and treatment of PTSD. This research will advance of newly trained clinicians is identified to become future trainers our theoretical understanding of the psychological and psycho-and supervisors and to receive weekly supervision by a PE expert biological mechanisms that underlie the development of PTSD for a series of training cases. The future trainers then participate and recovery from trauma. The impact of traumatic stress is now in a second intense PE training workshop before beginning to being studied at genetic, neurobiological, cognitive, behavioral provide supervision to other clinicians who have completed the and sociocultural levels [111,112]. At the same time, increasingly basic PE training. Preliminary evaluations suggest that training-
sophisticated research designs and analytic methods are being
based dissemination can be effective, but it is labor intensive and developed that will allow us to answer previously unanswer-limited by the availability of experts.
able questions. Integrating these new findings will advance our knowledge of how trauma affects processes within and between
these levels of ana lysis and thereby promote a more comprehen-
The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the worldwide threat sive understanding of PTSD. At the same time, we will continue of terrorism and the recent large-scale natural disasters have left to see treatment innovations that will allow us to treat PTSD millions suffering from PTSD and other post-traumatic distur-
more effectively and efficiently through translational research
bances. As a result, trauma and its sequelae have been brought and increased collaboration between basic and applied clinical to the fore in the academic community as well as in the media. research. As the consensus that PE and other evidence-based treat-There is currently an unprecedented level of awareness of PTSD ments for PTSD should be the first line of treatment increases, and great recognition of the urgent need to develop and widely as articulated in practice guidelines, greater research and clinical disseminate effective prevention and treatment strategies.
efforts will be channeled towards establishing methods for effec-
Efficacious treatments for PTSD are available, but there is room tively disseminating these treatments. This includes identifying
for further improvement. A significant minority of patients discon-
strategies to increase and maintain the availability of effective
tinue treatment (20.6% ), or remain somewhat symptomatic . treatment and reducing barriers for therapists in learning and
Expert Rev. Neurother.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD
implementing evidence-based treatment. This research will also examined is the use of virtual reality (VR) to deliver PE. Using inform our understanding of which specific treatment(s) should realistic virtual recreations of patients' traumatic experiences be targeted for dissemination.
may enhance outcomes by facilitating activation of the fear
In terms of clinical research, we expect that the growing interest (emotional) cognitive structures, which we know to be an
in examining novel strategies to enhance the efficacy and efficiency important factor for successful emotional processing [120,121]. of evidence-based treatments will continue to expand. We have In addition, VR may be especially beneficial for patients who already seen encouraging results from studies investigating the use have persistent difficulty engaging in imaginal exposure. At of pharmacological agents as adjuncts to exposure therapy. The use present, there is some preliminary evidence for the efficacy of of d-cycloserine (DCS) to enhance the mechanisms that underlie delivering PE using VR [122,123], but more research is needed to exposure therapy has been shown to reduce the number of sessions determine whether VR can ameliorate PTSD symptoms more needed to achieve clinically significant gains in six of eight controlled effectively or efficiently than standard PE. Issues related to the trials to date (specific phobia , social anxiety disorder [25,114], cost–effectiveness of using VR to deliver exposure therapy will panic disorder , obsessive–compulsive disorder [116,117]; however, also need to be addressed. see specific phobia  and obsessive–compulsive disorder ),
Finally, we will also see further development and testing of
with medium-to-large effect sizes across studies . Unfortunately, computer- and internet-based treatments for PTSD. Much of no data are currently available on the effects of DCS on exposure the interest in these novel treatment delivery modalities stems therapy for PTSD, although two large-scale trials of DCS augmenta-
from their potential to increase the cost–effectiveness of treat-
tion of exposure-based treatment for combat-related PTSD are cur-
ment and reduce financial and logistical barriers to seeking care.
rently underway. Methylene blue (MB) is another pharmacological There is encouraging initial support for the efficacy of internet-agent being tested as an adjunct to exposure therapy for anxiety based exposure treatment of PTSD [124–128], and preliminary evi-disorders. The hypothesized mechanism by which MB facilitates dence suggests that the effects are maintained for up to 1.5 years therapeutic gains in treatment is conceptually and methodologically post-treatment .
different to that of DCS. However, both pharmaco logical agents are thought to facilitate treatment by promoting memory consolida-
Financial & competing interests disclosure
tion of the inhibitory learning that occurs during exposure therapy. The authors have no relevant affiliations or financial involvement with any
Enhancement of PE with MB is currently being investigated in a organization or entity with a financial interest in or financial conflict with
large-scale randomized controlled trial for PTSD.
the subject matter or materials discussed in the manuscript. This includes
We expect to see continued research aimed at developing employment, consultancies, honoraria, stock ownership or options, expert
treatment delivery methods that capitalize on technological testimony, grants or patents received or pending, or royalties.
advances. For example, one strategy that is currently being
No writing assistance was utilized in the production of this manuscript.
s A substantial minority of individuals who experience a traumatic event will go on to develop chronic post-traumatic stress
s Based on the tenets of emotional processing theory, prolonged exposure is an evidence-based treatment for PTSD that involves in vivo
exposure (approaching feared stimuli and situations), imaginal exposure (repeated revisiting of the traumatic memory in imagination) and processing (articulating and elaborating on corrective learning).
s Considerable evidence indicates that several cognitive–behavioral therapies are effective in treating PTSD relative to waiting-list and
active control conditions. Of these, prolonged exposure has been supported by the greatest number of studies and is considered a first-line treatment for PTSD.
s Few individuals with PTSD receive evidence-based treatment due to stigma, lack of resources and lack of trained clinicians. More
effective treatment dissemination methods are clearly needed.
s Promising new research is now examining novel treatment delivery modalities (e.g., virtual reality, computer- and internet-based
treatment programs) and strategies to enhance the mechanisms underlying exposure therapy through adjunctive pharmacology.
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A Networked, Media-Rich Programming Environment to Enhance Technological Fluency at After-School Centers in Economically-Disadvantaged Communities Principal Investigators: Mitchel Resnick, MIT Media Laboratory Yasmin Kafai, UCLA John Maeda, MIT Media Laboratory Funded by National Science Foundation (Information Technology Research), 2003-2007
A EU operation to develop and enlarge expertise in tackling the trade of fake medicine through the internet Module E-commerce THE WEB WE KNOW The web size can be defined by:• The numbers of domains in the world (around 250 M)• The number of indexed pages (around 2 B)• The server space used to index (around 2000 T)