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PTSD: National Center for PTSD


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Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD



This section is for Veterans, General Public, Family, & Friends

This section is for Veterans, General Public, Family, and Friends

Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD

Practice guidelines have identified the treatments that have the most evidence for treating PTSD. The best treatments include different talk therapies (or psychotherapy) and medications. Prolonged Exposure (PE) is one of these treatments.

What Type of Treatment Is This?

PE is a psychotherapy for PTSD. It is one specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy. PE teaches you to gradually approach trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations that you have been avoiding since your trauma. By confronting these challenges, you can actually decrease your PTSD symptoms.

How Does It Work?

People with PTSD often try to avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma. This can help you feel better in the moment, but not in the long term. Avoiding these feelings and situations actually keeps you from recovering from PTSD. PE works by helping you face your fears. By talking about the details of the trauma and by confronting safe situations that you have been avoiding, you can decrease your PTSD symptoms and regain more control of your life.

What Will I Do?

Your provider will start by giving you an overview of treatment and getting to know more about your past experiences. You will also learn a breathing technique to help you manage anxiety. Around your second session, you will work with your provider to make a list of people, places, or activities that you have stayed away from since your trauma. Over the course of therapy, you will work through your list step-by-step, practicing in vivo exposure. This means that you will gradually confront these situations. With time, you will find that you can feel comfortable in these situations--and you will not need to avoid them anymore. After a few sessions, you will begin to talk through the details of your trauma with your provider. This is called imaginal exposure. Talking about the trauma can help with emotions like fear, anger, and sadness. You will listen to recordings of your imaginal exposure between sessions. By confronting the details of the trauma in therapy, you will find that you have fewer unwanted memories at other times.

How Long Does Treatment Last?

PE usually takes 8-15 weekly sessions, so treatment lasts about 3 months. Sessions are 1.5 hours each. You may start to feel better after a few sessions. And the benefits of PE often last long after your final session with your provider.

What Are the Risks?

The risks of doing PE are mild to moderate discomfort when engaging in new activities and when talking about trauma related memories. These feelings are usually brief and people tend to feel better as they keep doing PE. There is also a slight risk that someone could listen to a therapy session without your permission if the recording was not secure. You and your provider can discuss ways to secure your personal information related to this program. Most people who complete PE find that the benefits outweigh any initial discomfort.

Group or Individual?

PE is an individual therapy. You will meet one-to-one with your provider for each session.

Will I Talk in Detail about My Trauma?

Yes, around your 3rd session, you will start talking in detail about your trauma. Your provider will guide you through it, keep track of your anxiety level as you talk, and will make sure you take things at your own pace. You will listen to a recording of this part of your session at home between sessions.

Will I Have Homework?

Yes, you will practice doing some of the things you have avoided since your trauma. You will start with activities that are manageable for you, and you will work up to activities that are more challenging. You will also listen to a recording of your therapy sessions, including your imaginal exposure recording. Practicing these skills between sessions helps you get the most out of PE.

Does VA Have an App for That?

Yes, PE Coach is a mobile app that you can use while you are doing PE with a provider. PE Coach can help you to learn more about PE and PTSD symptoms and helps you stay organized as you complete PE. It a free download on most mobile devices.

Date this content was last updated is at the bottom of the page.

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Also see: VA Mental Health