Exposure therapy – not so fast buddy!


From what I’ve posted so far this week, you might think that I would propose exposure therapy be something for all therapists to use with people, but no! I think it’s something that only some people will adopt, and it’s only useful for some people. Although all of us can incorporate some aspects of it in our practice, I don’t think everyone is suited to actually doing this type of work.

Some of my colleagues (and probably my kids too!!) would say that I’m ideally suited to doing this type of therapy – I don’t have any qualms about asking someone to do something that may (read usually…!) increase their distress and often their pain. Just hand me a whip and I’ll use it (no, not really!).
But if you are not like this, and do feel a little worried about possibly causing harm, or at least increasing someone’s pain, then don’t feel you have to do it. The reason for this is simple: if you inadvertently suggest, through nonverbal or verbal means, that they do have a good reason to fear doing the activity, then you may well inadvertently reinforce their anxiety.

It’s true that we as health providers are often as fear-avoidant as the people we work with! What I mean is, we tend to be ‘nicer’ and less assertive in our requirements than when we allow people with pain to set goals for themselves and others. Vlaeyen & Linton (2006), and others have identified that treatment providers who have fear-avoidant beliefs themselves are more likely to suggest passive treatments than those who are not. Some years ago it Hazard (1996) found that people who are given no activity restrictions when they return to work actually return to work more quickly than those who are provided with selected activities.

I’ve observed too, that once the exposure process is underway, progress quickly gains pace. So the first few steps on the hierarchy are quite slow, but provided that the person is generalising their skill, they start to set their own goals and these are often quite a lot higher up the hierarchy than I would have put the target!

So, bringing together some of the factors identified in the Craske, et al. (2008) article I referred to yesterday, here are some thoughts about ways to make exposure therapy effective.

1. Practicing exposure in different contexts, with and without ‘warning’, and maintaining this exposure over time
2. Encouraging tolerance to experiencing anxiety – it’s OK to not feel entirely comfortable with a movement that has been uncomfortable in the past, it’s just not OK to avoid it!
3. Practicing in different situations with or without feedback and encouragement – it seems that too much verbal feedback can ‘seduce’ the person into believing that they have their fear conquered, but this can be a temporary effect that can disappear quite quickly. It seems to be more effective to have a delay between sessions during which the person practices alone than to have multiple practices with support.
4. Avoid the use of ‘safety behaviours’ – especially ‘special’ movements such as a special ‘safe lifting’ technique, but also the presence of another person (especially you!), or special preparations such as counting or breathing or using equipment. Although you may start with this, in the end it’s important that the person learns to do the movement without any props or rituals.
5. Generalising the exposure into the ‘real’ world needs to happen throughout and after the therapy. Integrating the new learning into life is the aim of therapy, but needs to be structured to actually occur. A plan to make this learning happen should be developed and monitored, as well as a ‘relapse’ plan.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour through exposure therapy and the pain-related anxiety and avoidance model. I’ll keep you posted on progress with my client – today he made it into the hydrotherapy pool, so here’s hoping he’ll be well on his way to returning to a normal level of activity in the next few months.

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