When you think of the word “therapy” you probably picture a person lying on a couch talking to a professional who is writing down what the patient says. This is the classic example of therapy thanks to Sigmund Freud. However, therapy is not all talking about problems to a psychologist. While that is a very helpful and common technique, there are other forms of therapy that are effective as well, one of which is ERP therapy, or Exposure Response Prevention therapy.
Exposure Response Prevention therapy (aka ERP therapy) is a type of therapy dealing with facing fears and problems head on. This therapy is used very commonly for people with OCD and anxiety disorders. People who suffer from disorders, specifically OCD and anxiety disorders, have a wide range of very intense fears that can be debilitating to them. ERP helps suffers of these disorders move past their fears and begin to overcome many of the hurtles they face with these kinds of illnesses.
ERP therapy emphasizes the importance of facing fears by presenting the things we are afraid of.
How does this help?
Initially, ERP is very anxiety-inducing and makes people very uncomfortable. It forces us to deal with these problems in a very direct way. This “exposure” to their fears helps people realize they can overcome their fears and do not always have to engage and entertain them.
This is especially helpful for people with OCD, who get intrusive thoughts about their fears or worries, and feel the need to make a compulsive response to them.
So how does it really work?
Let’s answer this question with an example, which makes it much easier to understand.
Person X suffers from OCD and is afraid of contamination (aka germs...a very common fear for those with this disorder). Person X goes to their therapist who recommends trying ERP therapy. During ERP therapy, Person X is asked to touch a toilet seat but not wash their hands immediately after as they would normally do. Person X is asked to not wash their hands for several hours and let the germs sit there. Person X is very anxious and upset the first time this is done, but after many times, they begin to feel less anxious about germs. Eventually, through working with a therapist and using ERP therapy, Person X learns to cope with their fear of contamination and may even see a reduction in their fear of the germs.
Now, this is not a process that happens overnight. ERP therapy can take a very long time to successfully trim down some issues people face with their disorders, and it looks different on everyone. For instance, in OCD alone, there are many different subtypes: COCD, POCD, HOCD, ROCD, and more. Each subtype of OCD comes with its own set of specialized fears and each person has their own individual worries specific to them that they need help with through ERP therapy. Contamination is not the only thing people use ERP therapy for. This is also common with various anxiety disorders as well.
ERP therapy is designed to help you face the fears that are interfering with your every day life. However, just like ERP does not work immediately, your list of fears can’t be fixed immediately and requires work.
It is helpful for patients to make a list of fears they have and try ERP therapy with the smaller fears first and work up to the biggest fears, the same way you learn simple math before you move up to the harder stuff. If you start off with the hardest problems, you might become too frustrated too quickly and give up before the ERP has had a chance to work. This is why it is important to take it a little at a time, and remember that it does not matter how slowly you go; all that matters is that you are going.
ERP therapy can be very difficult for those who try it. It is a tiring process that can take a very long time, but it is also a very beneficial therapeutic technique that has proved to lighten the load of many people suffering from mental illness. It is definitely a therapy worth trying!