An Overview of the Emotional Processing Theory

An Overview of the Emotional Processing Theory

NOTE: This post is part of a larger series of on the theory, practice, and research on exposure therapy. If you are interested in other posts in this series, you can find them here.

Twenty-five years ago, in an attempt to create a unifying theory that would explain the processes of and guide the use of exposure in the treatment of anxiety disorders, Foa and Kozak (1986) developed the emotional processing theory (aka, information processing theory). The emotional processing theory has since guided an enormous amount of research, particularly for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Dr. Foa drew from the theory in developing prolonged exposure, a landmark PTSD treatment and the gold standard approach to PTSD treatment.

Much of my experience with the emotional processing theory comes from my training in prolonged exposure. When I was originally trained in prolonged exposure, I had the impression that it was more on the behavioral side of cognitive behavioral therapy. However, in reading about the emotional processing theory in greater depth, I realized that, although prolonged exposure looks procedurally like behavior therapy, the theory behind it is more of a product of the cognitive revolution with its emphasis on the computer as a metaphor for the human mind.

According to the emotional processing theory, fear is activated through associative networks that include information about the feared stimulus, escape or avoidance responses to the feared stimulus, and the meaning of the fear (e.g., threat or danger). Fear becomes problematic when it is intense to a degree that it gets in the way of functioning, or when it persists even when there are no clear indications of danger. In these instances, there may be maladaptive or pathological fear structures. The theory holds that chronic avoidance (e.g., escape behavior, avoidance, dissociation) often leaves these maladaptive schemas in place, as people do not remain in a situation long enough for new learning to occur.

Emotional processing theory proposes that exposure can alter the relationships between the fear stimulus and these networks. For this to happen, the network must first be activated, and then new information must be encoded that is incompatible with what is in the fear network. This is accomplished through habituation. Staying in contact with a fear stimulus until there’s a reduction in anxiety allows for the encoding of new information that is incompatible with the fear stimulus (e.g., it’s not dangerous). For example, in someone with OCD, repeated exposure to an obsession while refraining from engaging in a particular ritual serves to disconfirm maladaptive beliefs about the importance of the ritual in keeping harm away.

I break this process down with greater detail below.

Fear Structures

We’ll start with fear structures. Originally proposed by Lang (1977), fear structures are cognitive networks of maladaptive thinking that become activated through fear or anxiety. For people with anxiety-related problems, there are two common maladaptive beliefs about the fear stimulus: 1. That anxiety or distress will escalate to the degree it becomes unmanageable (e.g., “I can’t handle this”); 2. The feared stimulus or their experience of anxiety will cause harm (e.g., “I’ll lose control” or “I’ll go crazy”). For example, someone with panic disorder might think, “I’m going to die” when they start to notice panic cues like shortness of breath.

The major problem, according to emotional processing theory, is that people with anxiety disorders usually engage in some form of escape or avoidance behaviors when they feel anxious. As a result, they don’t remain in contact with their anxiety long enough to disconfirm the fear structure. Over time, people continue to engage in disruptive behaviors (e.g., escape) whenever they experience fear. An unfortunate side effect of continued avoidance behavior is that people’s lives begin to constrict in order to avoid things that trigger the fear structures. Their lives become narrower and more confined (e.g., they stop leaving the house).

Disconfirming Fear Structures Through Habituation

The solution then, according to the emotional processing theory, is for people to stay with their anxiety long enough for it to reduce on its own. Research suggests that so long as we don’t actively feed anxiety through worry, it tends to go down on its own after about 45 minutes –what is called habituation to the feared stimulus. Through repeated habituation, they begin to learn that what they’re afraid will happen (e.g., “I’ll go crazy”) doesn’t occur, and/or that the feared consequences are less likely to occur or are milder than expected (e.g., “If people notice I’m anxious, they’ll laugh at me”).

Foa and Kozak (1986) suggested that exposure weakens associations and replaces maladaptive fear associations with more adaptive ones. However, this view was revised in Foa and McNally (1996), where the authors incorporated animal behavior models of exposure from the lab of Bouton. Bouton’s work suggests that exposure does not actually alter associations so much as creates new, competing associations. What this means is that following exposure, there may now be two associations: a pathological one and a non-pathological one. Ideally, the person begins engaging in behaviors that are more in accordance with the non-pathological association, strengthening it over time.

Here’s an example: A motor vehicle accident survivor develops a fear structure involving thoughts that all automobiles are extremely dangerous. As a consequence, he stops driving. The therapist might arrange a series of exposure exercises involving automobiles. The person might start by sitting in a parked car each day until his anxiety decreases. He may then drive very slowly on low traffic streets, working his way up to driving again. The man may retain the association that all automobiles are dangerous, but through exposure a competing association that harm is unlikely accompanies it. The man may then make choices in accordance with this second association (e.g., the choice to drive a car).

A Glimpse Into the Future of the Emotional Processing Theory

This is a brief sketch of the emotional processing theory. It has been hugely influential in guiding research on anxiety treatment, particular for posttraumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The application of the emotional processing theory to PTSD has led to a very successful treatment—prolonged exposure. However, treatments may be effective even if the theories guiding them are not entirely accurate.

As I’ve written in a previous post, the main area in which newer research has brought the emotional processing theory into question is its emphasis on habituation. There’s no reason to offer a complete retread of the post, but newer research suggests that it’s not necessary for someone’s anxiety to go down during exposure in order for him or her to benefit. Additionally, McNally (2007) argued that the concept of “fear structures” is vague, circular, and not supported by research. Dr. Craske at UCLA, in particular, has criticized the principles underlying the emotional processing theory (See Craske et al, 2008 for a summary of exposure research; Baker et al, 2010, for study from Craske’s lab questioning the usefulness of habituation in predicting treatment outcome).

In upcoming posts, I’ll be discussing newer research that challenges the emotional processing theory, and that offers glimpses into where our understanding of exposure may go.

For more information about Emotional Processing Theory

If you want to read more about emotional processing theory, here’s a good book:

 Pathological Anxiety, Emotional Processing in Etiology and Treatment (2005), by Barbara Rothbaum.

Or for the most widely used guide for Prolonged Exposure, the main therapy approach guided by emotional processing theory, see:

Prolonged Exposure Therapy for PTSD: Emotional Processing of Traumatic Experiences Therapist Guide (2007) by Edna Foa, et al.

For more about exposure therapy, check out my other posts on the topic.