Exposure and Response (Ritual) Prevention for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
I recently attended intensive training in Exposure and Response Prevention for OCD at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In addition to terrific presentations by Dr. Elna Yadin, OCD Clinic Director, and staff members, we were honored with a Q&A session with Dr. Edna Foa. While I already considered myself a skilled therapist in treating OCD, this training helped refine my skills in systematically implementing a specialized form of OCD treatment called “Exposure and Response (Ritual) Prevention,” also know as EX/RP or ERP.
What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a neurological disorder that causes severe anxiety/distress and affects your thinking and behavior. OCD tends to attack the things you value the most. When you feel anxious, it might feel like you are in danger. OCD tells you to respond, react, protect yourself, and do something to get rid of the distress. You might recognize that the fear is excessive or doesn’t make sense, yet it still feels very real, intense, and true. If you have OCD, the warning system in your brain is not working correctly. Your brain is telling you that you are in danger when you are not.
Common Types of OCD
Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or impulses that occur over and over again and feel out of your control. They are disturbing, anxiety-provoking and perhaps even disgusting to you. Common obsessions include contamination from germs, bodily fluids, diseases, or chemicals; causing or failing to prevent harm to others; fear of losing control; sexual, religious or morally offensive thoughts and images; perfectionism; and not-just-right feelings.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental rituals that you engage in to neutralize, undo or make your anxiety go away. Compulsions can also include avoiding situations that trigger obsessions. Common compulsions include checking, washing and cleaning, repeating an action, putting things in order, praying, counting, mental review, reassurance seeking, apologizing and confessing. These actions are designed to prevent or reduce emotional discomfort and avoid the occurrence of a dreaded event. Compulsions tend to provide temporary relief but the obsessions soon return.
It is important to note that OCD comes in many different forms and no two OCD sufferers are alike in their combination of obsessions and compulsions as well as the meaning they attribute to their feared catastrophe.
What is Exposure and Response (Ritual) Prevention (EX/RP)?
In a nutshell, EX/RP consists of exposing you to the triggers that cause anxiety and fear and teaching you to resist doing any compulsions or rituals to reduce the distress. The basic principles of EX/RP can be boiled down to three steps that need to be practiced consistently to overcome OCD:
- Confront the things you fear as often as possible.
- If you feel like you have to avoid something, don’t.
- If you feel like you have to perform a ritual to feel better, don’t.
With EX/RP, your brain learns that you can tolerate anxiety and that your anxiety will eventually come down without rituals. Your brain will learn that the feared catastrophe does not happen or that you could handle it if it did. And you may start to realize just how ridiculous or unrealistic your obsessional fears are and how much OCD is taking away from your life. Basically, OCD is a bully! We will teach you how to take charge and not give OCD the attention it craves.
The main treatment components of EX/RP include:
- Assessment, Education and Treatment Planning: We’ll identify all your triggers, obsessional fears and related rituals and make a plan to systematically approach your fears without engaging in rituals. We will also teach you about the sneaky ways OCD tries to trick you and lies to you. You will learn that OCD is like a “tic” in the brain that is trying to protect you but instead OCD is making you a slave and ruining your life.
- In Vivo Exposure: Exposures are the heart of OCD treatment. In this step, we will expose you to real life triggers that elicit fear, anxiety and/or disgust in a gradual hierarchical manner. We will start with easy exposures and, as you gain confidence you can cope with your anxiety, we will move up the hierarchy to confront situations that are more challenging.
- Imaginal Exposure: This involves prolonged exposure in your imagination to your worst fears without doing any rituals. We’ll develop a script (or series of scripts) for you to record and listen to every day until you are no longer scared of the content of your obsessions and you can visualize yourself facing your fear without any rituals.
- Response (Ritual) Prevention: RP is the identification and elimination of all physical and mental compulsions so you can learn you can cope with distress without doing rituals or avoidance. You will learn that while your rituals reduce anxiety/distress in the short term, they are not building your courage that you can handle anxiety without them. Rituals are actually fuel to OCD’s fire and maintain the OCD cycle.
- Cognitive Processing: The key to long term, permanent change is gaining new beliefs and increasing your self-confidence. OCD is making you believe things that aren’t true and exaggerating the danger of your fears. In order to help you overcome OCD, we won’t tell you what to think because OCD will just argue with you. Instead, we’ll discuss what you have actually learned through your EX/RP activities and reinforce your experiential learning in order to create new beliefs about the meaning of your obsessions.
In EX/RP, you will purposely experience your obsessive thoughts without ritualizing so you can learn that your discomfort/anxiety will come down and your fear is eventually extinguished. With your therapist, you will develop a hierarchy of exposures that will elicit your obsessional fear and we’ll develop a plan for systematically targeting each of the items. We’ll identify both behavioral and mental rituals to eliminate. EX/RP generally takes about 20 sessions total. We recommend two 75-minute sessions per week to help you maintain continuity and motivation in doing the exposures and to progress more quickly to relieve your suffering.
Initial Evaluation Session
The goal of the initial evaluation session is to learn about your background and history as well as determine what type of anxiety you have. If the diagnosis is OCD, then we will discuss the EX/RP treatment approach and determine if it is a good fit for you. We will also begin to assess your motivation since completing daily exposures in between sessions is essential to success in this program.
Information Gathering and Education
In the next one to two sessions, we will gather a lot of information about the content of your obsessions, types of compulsions/rituals you use to reduce obsessive fears, and the feared consequences if you are unable to perform your rituals. We will use a standardized assessment tool called the YBOCS, which helps us assess all the OCD symptoms and rate the severity of your OCD from mild, moderate to severe. You will also be asked to monitor your OCD symptoms throughout the week. The goal of this phase is to develop a thorough understanding of your obsessions and compulsions and the situations likely to trigger them. We will continue to assess your motivation for treatment and how much support you will need by the therapist and family members in implementing your EX/RP plan.
Next, we will spend one to two sessions determining what the feared catastrophe is, creating the hierarchy, identifying and ranking the order of exposures, deciding whether imaginal exposure is needed, creating the plan for reducing and eliminating rituals, and deciding whether exposure requires travel outside the therapist’s office such as a home visit. The question often arises as to whether we need to create different hierarchies for each type of OCD. While this may be helpful when the OCDs seem completely unrelated to one another, it is often not needed because the ultimate fear is often the same for all the OCDs. By creating one master hierarchy and working on fears by level of discomfort/anxiety, you will learn the principles of treatment and the therapy often generalizes more effectively from one symptom to the next.
To create a hierarchy, you and your therapist will generate a list of all the situations that provoke obsessive fear and avoidance behavior. We will then ask you to rate how much distress each situation causes for you on a scale of 0 to 100 and we will place the items in order from easiest to hardest. We generally start working on exposures rated in the 40-50 range and progress to harder exposures and the easier ones are mastered.
Imaginal exposures are used when engaging in the actual situation is not possible in real life, when your feared consequences are so far into the future that they can not be disconfirmed, or when you have so much fear approaching the real life situations that we need to start with thinking about the situation before progressing to actual exposures.
Exposure and Response Prevention Treatment
EX/RP treatment begins when we start working on the first situation on your hierarchy. Generally, 15 exposure sessions are recommended but some people with mild OCD may progress more rapidly while others with more severe OCD may need extra sessions. We will start with doing exposures during the therapy session and then assign the same exposure as homework for you to practice on your own. When your distress significantly declines and you no longer fear the situation, then we will move to the next item on the hierarchy. Since we are starting with items you ranked at a moderate level and only moving up when your distress has declined, it makes working on the harder items on the hierarchy feel much easier. If you find that you are not feeling a reduction of anxiety within 45 minutes, then we have probably underestimated the difficulty of that situation and we would move to an easier item. If we are working at the right pace, you should be feeling challenged in exposure sessions but not so uneasy that you can’t do it.
While doing exposures, you will not be allowed to perform any rituals to undo the anxiety or distress. Sometimes we may allow you to modify a ritual to allow you to approach situations that are more difficult and higher on the hierarchy but our goal will be to quickly eliminate the all rituals associated with that situation. We want your brain to learn that it can face your fears and overcome obsessional fears without doing any rituals.
A key to success in EX/RP is changing how you relate to the meaning of danger created by your OCD. This is called cognitive processing, where we will discuss what you learned from the exposure without doing your normal rituals. We will stress that the content of your obsessions doesn’t matter because OCD will latch onto whatever is important to you. Most people have multiple types of OCD and notice it morphs and evolves over time into new symptoms. We want you to learn the general principles of EX/RP so you can “zap” whatever part of your life OCD wants to target in the future.
We will move up the hierarchy as quickly as you can tolerate it. When all the items on your hierarchy no longer cause distress and you are no longer performing rituals to reduce anxiety, then we can formally end the EX/RP treatment phase.
Generally, we’ll plan on two to three relapse prevention sessions spaced out over time. OCD symptoms often wax and wane with stress and life transitions. Relapse prevention consists of reviewing your progress, identifying the tools you can use to manage any future OCD flare ups, identifying and planning how to handle potential future stressors, and knowing the warning signs of OCD and how you can treat it yourself with your tools, especially self-exposure.