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What is Prolonged Exposure Therapy?

Prolonged exposure is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that teaches individuals to approach trauma-related memories, feelings and situations in a safe environment, bypassing tendencies towards avoidance.

Most people avoid those people, places, and things that remind them of the trauma they experienced. The problem is, doing this only reinforces the fear. PE encourages individuals to face what they have been avoiding, which helps decrease symptoms of PTSD by seeing that the memories and emotions caused by the trauma are not dangerous.

Essentially this treatment takes the emotional charge out of the memories and allows a person to experience life without being controlled by PTSD symptoms.

What are the main components? How does it work?

Prolonged exposure is provided over the course of 3-4 months of individual therapy sessions. Initial sessions will help the provider understand a person’s background, personal history, and gather some information about the trauma experienced.

The therapist will then explain in detail what to expect during the course of treatment. Over the next 8-12 sessions, a person will walk through the details of the trauma in the present tense and face the emotions that are associated with the trauma.

While this may be anxiety-provoking initially this very effective treatment quickly helps a person realize that the emotion and fear associated with the trauma can dissipate over time.

There are two main components of PE – Imaginal Exposure and In-vivo Exposure. Imaginal exposure is when a person describes the trauma in detail in the present tense with support and guidance from their therapist. Throughout this portion they will process the emotions that are experienced.

In-vivo Exposure can be thought of like a homework assignment. They will be asked, between sessions, to confront feared stimuli outside of therapy. This might be visiting places that create stress or experiencing things that induce an emotional response. While the person is asked to challenge their comfort zone, this is done in a very gradual and cautious manner.

Common Issues Treated With
Prolonged Exposure Therapy


Post-traumatic Stress Disorder