ERP therapy is an evidence-based approach that has proved to be effective at helping people who have developed several mental health disorders. Although the fundamental principles of ERP therapy date to the 1960s and 1970s, many people have never heard of it. This unfamiliarity can prompt many questions, such as What is ERP therapy? How does it work? and Can I or a loved one benefit from this type of treatment?
What is ERP Therapy?
“ERP” in ERP therapy stands for exposure and response prevention. As this name suggests, this treatment method involves gradual, supervised exposure to situations or circumstances that may trigger negative responses in a people who have certain mental illnesses. When provided by a trained professional, ERP therapy follows this exposure with guidance to help prevent the onset of these negative responses.
In other words, ERP therapy helps people replace self-defeating or otherwise problematic reactions to triggers with healthier ways of responding. As we will discuss in a later section, ERP therapy is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT.
What Does ERP Therapy Treat?
ERP therapy has been successfully used to help people who have disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and eating disorders. However, ERP therapy is most often used to treat people who have OCD. In fact, several sources refer to ERP therapy as “the gold standard” for treating OCD.
People who have OCD may experience one or both of the following types of symptoms:
- Obsessions – These are recurring thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause considerable distress. Examples of OCD-related obsessions include intense fear of becoming contaminated, concern that you will hurt someone else, or worries that you have forgotten to lock the door to your house or performed some other basic safety function.
- Compulsions – These are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that, like compulsions, are sources of significant distress. Examples of compulsions among people who have OCD include showering or washing their hands multiple times every day, being unable to leave a room unless they have turned the lights on and off a certain number of times, or mentally repeating certain phrases or number sequences over and over again.
ERP therapy for OCD typically focuses on preventing people from engaging in behavioral compulsions. When used to treat people who have anxiety or specific phobia, this treatment method can stop people from acting in unhealthy ways when they are exposed to certain objects, items, or situations.
How Does ERP Therapy Work?
Now that we have a better grasp on what is ERP therapy and what disorders it treats, we can take a closer look at how it works.
As we noted earlier, this is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is one of the most frequently employed types of psychotherapy, or talk therapy. It has helped people who have developed a wide range of mental and behavioral health disorders, including anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, OCD, and substance use disorders (addictions).
CBT is a short-term, problem-focused approach. In general terms, the goals of CBT include helping people identify self-defeating thought patterns that lead to problematic behaviors, with the intention of replacing them with healthier ways of thinking and acting.
This method builds on the CBT framework by incorporating the objects, situations, or circumstances that can trigger a person’s maladaptive behaviors. For example, some people with OCD have a deep fear of being contaminated through everyday activities such as shaking hands. In addition to prompting a person to avoid shaking hands with others, this fear can also cause them to compulsively wash their hands or shower excessively.
ERP therapy isn’t designed to help people avoid triggers (such as, in this case, shaking hands). Instead, the goal of this approach is to help people respond to triggers in a healthy manner.
Over the course of several sessions, the therapist may encourage the person to shake hands with other people without immediately washing their hands or taking other compulsive actions. The therapist will work with the patient to ease the stress they experience due to the handshaking and the lack of handwashing.
In another example, ERP therapy can be beneficial for people who have certain phobias, such as an overwhelming fear of spiders. In these cases, the ERP therapist will slowly expose the patient to the source of their anxiety. This may begin with photos of spiders, then advance to videos.
The ERP therapist will repeat this exposure multiple times over many sessions. Eventually, the patient may view an actual spider up close. With the therapist’s guidance and support, the patient can learn to replace their negative reactions to spiders with more positive responses.
Begin Therapy for Mental Health in Atlanta, GA
Peachtree Wellness Solutions offers customized care and comprehensive support to help adults whose lives have been disrupted by anxiety disorders, OCD, and other mental health concerns. Treatment at our center in Atlanta, Georgia, may incorporate a variety of evidence-based therapies, including ERP therapy, to meet the unique needs of each person who turns to us in a time of need. To learn more about our programs and services, give us a call or visit our admissions page today.