Corrective learning is a process that occurs when existing conceptions and beliefs are replaced by more adaptive ones. For individuals with anxiety, panic, and phobias, exposure therapy is a common form of treatment that aims to produce corrective learning.
During exposure therapy, individuals are exposed to things they fear or that threaten them. Because these situations or things are usually avoided as a result of anxiety, the theory behind exposure therapy posits that being confronted with the feared item or event in a controlled environment will allow the individual to realize that his or her fears surrounding that item or event will not be realized. It is also believed that the level of fear or anxiety that is experienced during the exposure directly predicts the level of reduction in anxiety at treatment outcome. In other words, the more fearful or anxious someone is during a session, the more he or she will be able to overcome that fear in the long run.
This theory has been tested at length. However, Alicia E. Meuret of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Texas wanted to examine this further. In a recent study, Meuret assessed the physiological and emotional responses of 34 participants with agoraphobia and panic as they underwent either a cognitive behavioral or breathing-based exposure therapy. She found that the participants all experienced increases in panic and anxiety during the sessions, as evidenced by physiological markers and emotional responses, but that these increases did not lead to better outcomes. In fact, the more panicked and fearful the individuals were, the worse their treatment outcomes. Additionally, in contrast to existing research, Meuret found that symptom reduction during treatment did not predict treatment outcome. In other words, even if the individuals experienced spikes in treatment severity during exposure and then were able to reduce their anxiety as the session continued, this drop did not lead to better overall outcome.
It has been suggested that allowing a client to experience symptom reduction during exposure provides a sense of self-control and mastery for the client and accomplishment for the therapist. And although this may indeed be true, the reduction of symptoms after exposure does not seem necessary for treatment success. In fact, the treatment outcomes were similar for those who left sessions with symptoms that were elevated as well as with symptoms that were diminished. Meuret believes that these results contradict the theory that fear reactivity is an indicator of treatment outcome, although her study was limited by sample size and the fact most of the participants were well-educated white females. “More research is needed to examine the underlying mechanism of corrective learning during exposure across therapy types,” she said.
- Meuret, Alicia E., Anke Seidel, Benjamin Rosenfield, Stefan G. Hofmann, and David Rosenfield. Does fear reactivity during exposure predict panic symptom reduction? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 80.5 (2012): 773-85. Print.
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