Imaginal exposures can also be useful for confronting fears of worst-case scenarios (eg, patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD] who imagine that they might contract a deadly illness, patients with social phobia who imagine that they are being ridiculed) to reduce the aversiveness of the thought.
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Internal vs external Exposures can target internal and/or external cues.
Exposures to external cues include a spider-phobic patient handling a spider, or a height-phobic patient systematically approaching increasing heights in a skyscraper.
For patients who completed the study, 86% in the exposure group improved on a measure that examined the frequency and severity of obsessions and compulsions compared with 48% in the clomipramine group and 79% in the combined-treatment group.
Several others have also demonstrated the efficacy of exposure-based treatments or treatment components for patients with GAD, so-cial anxiety disorder, and PTSD.
Graded exposure vs flooding Most exposure therapists use a graded approach in which mildly feared stimuli are targeted first, followed by more strongly feared stimuli.
This approach involves constructing an exposure hierarchy in which feared stimuli are ranked according to their anticipated fear reaction (Table 1).Theoretical mechanisms of exposure therapy Biologically, the extinction of fear appears to be mediated by N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor activity in the basolateral amygdala, a finding that has led to the use of neuroplasticity compounds such as d-cycloserine to augment exposure.For example, initial exposure to ocean water can be cold.Sometimes, in vivo exposure is not feasible (eg, it would be both difficult and hazardous for someone with combat-related PTSD to experience the sights, sounds, and smells of combat in real life).In such cases, imaginal exposure can be a useful alternative.In imaginal exposure, the patient is asked to vividly imagine and describe the feared stimulus (in this case, a traumatic memory), usually using present-tense language and including details about external (eg, sights, sounds, smells) and internal (eg, thoughts, emotions) cues.