An Interview with Michelle Craske, PhD, on “Maximizing Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders”

An Interview with Michelle Craske, PhD, on “Maximizing Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders”

In my ongoing series of posts about exposure therapy, I’ve written several times about the work of UCLA professor Michelle Craske, PhD. Dr. Craske has been on the cutting edge of exposure research, and her work has undermined the traditional notion posited in in the emotional processing theory that habituation to a feared stimulus is important in exposure work.

The Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology has posted an interview that Dr. Jacqueline Persons conducted with Dr. Craske on “Maximizing Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” This approximately 47-minute interview is an excellent introduction to and distillation of Dr. Craske’s work. The webpage also includes a pdf of a 2014 paper Craske authored summarizing this model.

Dr. Craske’s model focuses on using exposure to cultivate inhibitory learning to create new learning that overrides the fear-based association called excitatory meaning. The idea is that through repeated exposure, new learning occurs that contradicts the unhelpful more fear-based associations that result in anxiety and avoidance behavior.

3 considerations in the inhibitory learning model for conducting exposure with a client

In her interview, Dr. Craske emphasized three important things to consider in using exposure:

  1. What does this person really need to learn (i.e., inhibitory learning) in order to be less afraid of the fear stimulus (i.e., excitatory meaning) that will lead to improvement?
  2. How can the exposure exercise be designed to maximally benefit that learning; that is, how can the exposure exercise “violate” what that person expects will happen (e.g., usually something bad) based on the excitatory learning?
  3. New learning will occur both during the exposure exercise and long afterward through a period of consolidation. Consequently, whether someone’s distress diminishes (i.e., habituation) during the actual exposure exercise is not as important as the actual learning that may occur during and following the exposure.

Role of cognitive restructuring

Dr. Craske also had some interesting things to say about the role of cognitive restructuring in exposure work.  In traditional CBT, exposure work may be preceded by cognitive restructuring. According to Dr. Craske, preceding exposure work with cognitive restructuring may actually undermine the exposure work by softening the violation of the person’s expectations—the expectations based on the excitatory meaning of the feared stimulus. Consequently, Dr. Craske stated her lab will do cognitive restructuring after the exposure work as a means to help consolidate the new learning (i.e., inhibitory learning).

Check out the tables on the linked research paper!

Dr. Craske’s work can be a bit dense to read. Even if you don’t intend to read it, I encourage you to download the 2014 paper that is linked to the interview. Following the Reference section are 6 tables that offer concrete examples for using inhibitory learning to conduct exposure with specific anxiety-related problems and deepening the impact of the exposure. The paper also includes clinical examples and can serve as a useful reference for the interview.

In conclusion

If you have any interest in exposure at all, I encourage you to listen to this interview with Michelle Craske on “Maximizing Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” She speaks very clearly and elegantly about her work on inhibitory learning in manner that is very accessible.

The link also allows you to download a research paper summarizing this work. Download it. Even if you’re not up to reading a 30-page research article, it provides a nice reference and includes clinical examples and tables with suggested wording for setting up exposure exercises.

A special “thank you” to Dr. Jacqueline Person for conducting the interview, and to the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology for posting it!

Brian Thompson Ph.D.

Author: Brian Thompson Ph.D.

Brian is a licensed psychologist and Director of the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. His specialties include generalized anxiety, OCD, hair pulling, and skin picking.

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