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Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) for OCD: Treatment Mechanism

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How does ERP work?  What mechanism underlies it? Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by obsessions and compulsions.  Obsessions are disturbing thoughts, images, or impulses that increase feelings of anxiety. Compulsions (also known as “rituals”) are the strategies that individuals with OCD use to reduce the anxiety associated with obsessions.  Rituals are effective coping strategies in the short-term, in that they lead to fairly rapid decreases in anxiety.  However, rituals are considered maladaptive, because the anxiety relief they bring is short-lived.  Engaging in rituals ultimately increases the likelihood that obsessions will be re-experienced in the future.  This can be thought of as a positive feedback loop, in which compulsive behavior indirectly reinforces obsessions.  This is depicted in the bottom half of the included figure. The treatment of choice for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP), which not surprisingly, has...

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ERP therapy for OCD: Shifting from destructive to constructive to gestalt notions

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Here’s a question for you: Is exposure and response prevention (ERP) fundamentally a destructive or constructive process? I think that many people naturally conceptualize it as more of the former than the latter. They conceive of ERP as being the process by which we can “unlearn” or “weaken” maladaptive associations. We learn, through repetition, to no longer be afraid of those things that previously incited fear. On the surface, this appears to be a notion predicated on destruction. In actuality, it is not. If you ever take the time to refer back to the basic animal literature on fear learning and fear “unlearning”, you’ll find that associations appear to be weakened largely as a consequence of new learning taking place. This new learning competes with (and weakens the expression of) previous learning. It is this process that accounts for...

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Advanced ERP for OCD: how subtle rituals can limit your progress

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What is exposure and response prevention (ERP) for OCD? As any good psychologist experienced in treating OCD can tell you, the most effective treatment for OCD is exposure and ritual prevention (ERP).  You may also see this type of therapy referred to as exposure and response prevention.  In this case, the semantics are immaterial; the concepts are exactly the same.  ERP is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that is based on the premise that the best way to reduce your symptoms is to practice activities designed to trigger your anxiety and then resist any urges to ritualize.  ERP has two main components: exposure – purposely doing activities that are designed to elicit your anxiety response prevention – actively resisting the urge to complete a ritual For example, for someone who worries about germs, an exposure might involve...

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OCD guilt, shame, disgust, anxiety & depression: Why treatment sometimes fails (and what to do about it)

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OCD isn’t just about anxiety. Although anxiety is certainly a prominent feature of the disorder, clinicians who only attend to anxious symptoms can easily overlook some of its other core features. As a psychologist in Palm Beach, Florida, I work closely with kids, teens, and adults throughout the greater Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami areas on strategies for recovering from OCD. In the patients I treat, anxiety is often accompanied by significant guilt, shame, disgust, and depression. These features are not necessarily related to, or caused by, anxiety; they can be distinct processes. If you (or your psychologist) conceptualize exposure and response prevention (ERP) as only a means to habituate to anxiety but fail to consider how treatment must also address these other features, you are likely to have a suboptimal treatment response and will continue to experience significant...

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OCD, ERP, & doubt sensitivity: Shattering the illusion of certainty

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Many individuals with OCD hunger for certainty. It’s a craving that often can’t be easily sated. Early conceptions of OCD from the 19th century acknowledged this issue directly, in that OCD was often termed the “doubting disease.” It is this need for certainty, the need to eliminate doubt, that leads many people with OCD to perform repetitive behaviors, which are known as rituals. For example, it is doubt about whether one’s hands are sufficiently clean that leads one to engage in repetitive hand-washing rituals. Likewise, uncertainty about whether a stove has been turned off (and worry about potentially dire consequences) can underlie checking rituals. Many different types of rituals involve reassurance-seeking behaviors. For people with OCD who have intrusive bad thoughts (e.g., What if I secretly want to hurt a family member? What if I don’t believe in God...

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OCD symptoms: the obvious (and the not so obvious)

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Symptoms of OCD are everywhere. Turn on your television, and you’re likely to catch at least a fleeting glimpse of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Many popular TV shows feature characters with OCD (e.g., Emma on Glee, Monk), and it is through this lens that many members of the general population get their first exposure to OCD. Unfortunately, if your understanding of OCD is based solely on depictions in the popular media, you are likely to have a relatively limited (and perhaps, warped) sense of what OCD really is. The truth is that OCD symptoms can manifest in many different ways. Although some symptoms are more common (e.g., a fear about about germs or getting sick), other symptoms can be quite idiosyncratic and often go undetected by inexperienced psychologists. The unfortunate consequence of this is that many people with OCD don’t...

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