Prolonged Exposure as a Treatment Option for PTSD

By: Natalie Rice-Thorp, Ph.D. | February 19, 2021

Have you suffered exposure to death or threats of death, sexual violence or serious physical injury? Do you have nightmares or intrusive memories of some past traumatic event? Do you feel irritable, emotionally numb, or on edge? If so, you may be experiencing symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Do I need trauma-focused treatment?

PTSD symptoms can cause distress and disruption in people’s lives. People with PTSD commonly experience struggles at home, with friends, and at work. My clients with PTSD often find themselves withdrawing from people as they attempt to cope with their symptoms. Many of my clients have been told by well-meaning loved ones that they “just have to put it behind” them or “forget about it.” When they are unable to do so, my clients have worried that they are now somehow “broken” and they will never return to a more normal life. If you recognize yourself as one of these people, the good news is that you are not broken. Your system is doing what it was meant to do given the circumstances. It just needs a system update.

Several talk therapies exist that can effectively help to update your system. This article focuses on a treatment option called Prolonged Exposure.

What is PE?

Prolonged Exposure (PE) is a type of talk therapy that was developed by psychologist Edna Foa. PE is an evidenced-based therapy, meaning that rigorous scientific research shows it as effective in reducing trauma symptoms.

If you have experienced a traumatic event, you may have noticed a tendency to avoid anything that reminds you of that event. This avoidance may help you feel better temporarily in the short term, but it does not work as a long-term solution. Avoiding these thoughts, feelings, memories, and situations can get in the way of your recovery from PTSD. Using Prolonged Exposure, a therapist can help you gradually approach these things in a safe environment. In PE, you talk about the details of the traumatic event, and you learn how to confront safe situations that you have avoided since the trauma. In doing this, you can decrease your PTSD symptoms, feel more in control of your life and be more emotionally present with your loved ones. Prolonged Exposure allows for a personalized plan based on your specific goals and circumstances.

Prolonged Exposure typically takes twelve to fifteen weekly sessions, with treatment lasting about three to four months. I find it amazing that we see such significant and lasting results in such a short time. PE can work whether the trauma occurred a month or decades ago. Many people have experienced several traumatic events, which PE can easily accommodate. PE works for both military and civilian traumas, including childhood abuse.

How can PE change my life?

Clients in progress in PE typically notice that they feel less upset by trauma-related thoughts and memories. They begin to feel more comfortable confronting their avoided situations out in the world. With this progression, people begin to feel less irritable, less emotionally numb, and more involved in their lives. Their moods improve as they notice these changes taking place, and they feel more in control of themselves. My clients aren’t the only ones taking note of such positive developments: their loved ones also appreciate the changes and tend to become big fans of PE.

What if PE sounds too anxiety provoking for me?

If you can relate to this article but feel anxious just thinking about engaging in this type of treatment, that’s okay! That’s normal. After a traumatic event, your system can act like an overprotective watchdog. As you progress in treatment, your inner watchdog will learn that the therapy will not hurt you, and you will feel less anxious and more comfortable. You can talk to a psychologist to see if a trauma-based therapy such as Prolonged Exposure can help you. Psychologists know that people feel anxious about engaging in trauma-based therapy, and they can help you figure out where to start.

Working with trauma and doing treatments for PTSD is one of the most satisfying things I do in therapy. People sometimes ask, “isn’t that too heavy and depressing?” I find it quite the opposite. For many years, I’ve watched people shift from feeling broken to feeling empowered and strong. It is so rewarding to help people decrease their PTSD symptoms and feel connected to their lives again! Consider Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy as an effective treatment option in reducing PTSD symptoms for the long term.


Reference: Prolonged Exposure for PTSD (2020). National Center for PTSD. Retrieved from



Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

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