A Review of the Research Supporting (and Not Supporting) Inhibitory Learning Strategies

In my posts about exposure therapy, I’ve written about inhibitory learning theory a bit. I’ve particularly focused on how inhibitory learning theory has supplanted emotional processing theory (EPT) as the best supported model for exposure.

I recently came across a thorough review article that walks through the major inhibitory learning principles and recommended procedures—as well as some not explicitly tied to inhibitory learning –and assess the degree to which these principles and strategies are supported by research to date

The authors conclude:

Collectively, research support for exposure augmentation techniques aimed at optimizing inhibitory learning has fallen short of theoretical expectation in several respects. Though the literature strongly suggests that this theory provides a better mechanistic explanation for the results of exposure therapy than alternatives such as EPT (at least as originally proposed), findings regarding particular enhancement strategies have been quite inconsistent; even among studies in support of specific techniques, the majority of effects are modest at best.

As a summary can’t do justice to this article, I recommend you check it out yourself. If you have any interest in exposure therapy, it is essential reading.

Weisman, J.S, & Rodebaugh, T.L. (2018). Exposure therapy augmentation: A review and extension of techniques informed by an inhibitory learning approach. Clinical Psychology Review, 59, 41-51.

Here’s a link to the author’s ResearchGate page, where you can request a copy of the article.

Interoceptive Exposure in OCD Treatment

Interoceptive exposure (IE) involves using exercises (e.g., hyperventilation) to deliberately evoke feared bodily sensations (e.g., shortness of breath; tightness in chest). It is most commonly associated with panic disorder treatment. In a recent paper, anxiety disorders expert and UNC professor Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz and his grad student Shannon Blakely make a case for its use in OCD treatment.

Anxiety Sensitivity as a Transdiagnostic Process

At the 2016 International OCD Foundation Conference, I attended a workshop by the authors on this topic. They talked about anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity refers to proneness towards interpreting physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., increased heart rate) as signs of something dangerous (e.g., heart attack). People with anxiety sensitivity may assume that their anxiety is a sign of something dangerous.  For example, they may fear that they developed disease, are imminently in danger of dying, or are losing their minds.

Drawing from research, the authors suggest that anxiety sensitivity may contribute to OCD-related obsessions about symmetry (i.e., “just right”) or serve to reinforce obsessions (e.g., because arousal is high, the obsession must be true).

One relatively common obsession focuses on attraction, especially that one is attracted to children or to the same sex. These individual often constantly check their groin area for signs of sexual stimulation. During the workshop, the presenters played an amusing clip from Seinfeld of George receiving a massage from an attractive male masseuse and being upset that he may have been aroused during the massage (e.g., “I think it moved!”). The problem is that if we pay attention to our bodies long enough, we’re likely to perceive some sort of sensation.

The authors offer anxiety sensitivity transdiagnostic process cutting across a range of anxiety-related disorders. After that workshop, I downloaded the Anxiety Sensitivity Scale and Body Vigilance Scale from Abramowitz’s research lab page and have been using the measures to track progress in clients who report concerns with physical symptoms of anxiety ranging from panic to health-related anxiety.

Using interoceptive exposure to augment in vivo and imaginal exposure

In drawing from inhibitory learning research, the authors make the case that, in addition to being a standalone exposure, IE can be used to heighten in vivo and imaginal exposure. Combining exposure to OCD-related triggers with interoceptive exposure may help deepen learning.

For example, a heterosexual-identifying man who obsesses he might be gay may: 1. jog in place to increase heart rate and quicken breathing; 2. and then look at pictures of attractive men in order to increase contact with ambiguous physiological arousal.

Someone who fears they may become psychotic might: 1. engage in hyperventilation to induce feelings of derealization and deprersonalization (e.g., “signs” one is detaching from reality) and then 2. read first-person accounts of people who develop schizophrenia.

These combinations may help clients increase contact with a greater variety of related cues and triggers. The authors provide a useful case example to illustrate their points.

IE as a way to introduce exposure

The authors recommend beginning with IE before moving onto other types of exposure for OCD as a way to help clients practice willingness with increased distress to boost confidence that they can engage in exposure work. Of note, the authors abandon the term exposure hierarchy in favor of “exposure to-do list” to emphasis that treatments does not need to progress in a graduated fashion and that, consistent with inhibitory learning research, variability during exposure work may improve learning.

Summary

Although the focus of the article is interoceptive exposure for OCD, I think the article provides a compelling argument for how IE can enhance in vivo and imaginal exposure for a range of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive and related disorders where physical sensations are a trigger. Additionally, it provides clear examples of how to conduct exposure according to inhibitory learning theory. I’ve followed with interest the inhibitory learning research, but because much of the early research (e.g., Craske’s lab at UCLA) was lab-based, I’ve struggled with how to incorporate it into treatment. This article provides some very clear examples and conceptualizations. I’ve been very impressed with Dr. Abramowitz and his lab’s contributions to inhibitory learning research.

If you’d like to read the article, you can download an “in press” copy from the authors’ ResearchGate page.

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.

SUDS vs. Willingness: Values-Based ACT Exposure for OCD

Throughout the years, I’ve written a series of blogs posts on exposure therapy, including the use of exposure therapy in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In the absence of much guidance on using exposure in ACT, I co-authored a theoretical paper on its use in treating PTSD.

Recently I read an excellent paper outlining the use of ACT and exposure for OCD.

Exposure therapy for OCD from an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy framework

The article is a collaboration of 2 major research labs: Utah State professor Michael Twohig, a pioneer in the use ACT for OCD, and Jonathan Abramowitz, a professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and an incredibly prolific researcher in the field of anxiety.

The article walks through how exposure in an ACT context is different from traditional exposure and includes an example case, Monica, to illustrate treatment.

The authors provide helpful examples of values-based exposure exercises that emphasize willingness (i.e., acceptance) towards uncomfortable thoughts and feelings over traditional reduction in discomfort (e.g., habituation). As I’ve written about previously, difficulty with acceptance may maintain and exacerbate OCD symptoms. The authors note an overlap between an ACT approach and newer inhibitory learning approaches to exposure.

As the article is very readable and straightforward, there’s not much for me to say about it. I thought I’d expand upon and share my experiences with a few of the authors suggestions about relinquishing the traditional use of SUDS scores (i.e., discomfort) in favor of tracking the ACT process willingness, and of some of the difficulties in creating values-based exposure exercises.

SUDS vs. Willingness

In place of a traditional SUDS scale, the authors recommend a Willingness Scale, defined as the degree to which clients are will to be open and accepting of inner experiences (i.e., thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) during exposure in service of their values (i.e., qualities of living that are important to them).

As the authors note, when you ask a client for a Willingness score, you often receive an inverse SUDS score rather than willingness in a strict ACT sense. More simply, clients are typically more willing to accept lower distress and less willing to accept higher distress.

The authors describe how in these instances they help the client separate “one’s openness to the experience from the severity of the experience.” In my experience this can be tricky. Some clients take right away to the concept of willingness and it can be very powerful for them. Other clients I’ve worked with successfully complete treatment but (I suspect) may not quite understand willingness in the ACT sense.

I would also note that SUDS scores can be used as part of ACT for exposure. What would be inconsistent with an ACT approach would be to use SUDS to emphasize habituation to discomfort. I want to be clear that the article authors are not explicitly anti-SUDS—I only mention this because I have heard some people express the view that ACT-based exposure is incompatible with tracking SUDS. This is a misunderstanding.

For these reasons, I still ask about SUDS scores and Willingness scores when conducting exposure. For one, SUDS scores help me catch when Willingness score are simply an inverse of SUDS. Secondly, it provides a view into the client’s experience, as it’s often hard to gauge a client’s distress from the outside. Lastly, I see value in clients tracking distress—especially in people with OCD. Many people with OCD do not believe their obsessions 100%, but they fear their anxiety will spiral out of control if they don’t engage in their compulsions. SUDS scores can help clients observe if their actual experience matches what their minds tell them. Some notice distress doesn’t become overwhelming as predicted, or that it passes more quickly than expected.

Values-based exposure

I also want to comment on the authors’ discussion of values-based exposure. They have a really useful table (Table 2) in the article listing how exposure exercises were linked to values in the example case. Values can help motivate clients to engage in exposure and bring more meaning to the process. In my experience, though, it is not always easy to clearly link exposure exercises to values. This paper helps provide guidance.

Sometimes I’ve found it useful to start with a more basic exposure exercise that can be easily conducted in session even if it is less directly connected to values This can serve as an introduction and help orient clients to exposure work. When I was first experimenting with values-based exposure, I could spend entire sessions trying to identify one ERP exercise that a client really valued! Instead, I’ve found it simpler to come to session with some ideas and ask, “Would you be willing to start with X or Y?” to get started. As clients start to understand exposure work through experience, they can offer more precise guidance and feedback.

When asked about valued activity, additionally, some clients will tell you they are engaged in valued living but that dealing with obsessions is exhausting and interferes with connecting with joy. In these instances, the value may simply be learning to be more present with their experiences of activities in which they are already engaged.

Summary

This collaborative article `from two major OCD/anxiety research labs provides one of the best illustrations of using ACT and ERP for OCD that I’ve read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in ACT and exposure, and even non-ACT people who are interested in advancing models for exposure. I’ve offered a few opinions based on my experience conducting exposure in an ACT context that I hope readers find helpful.

If you’d like to read the article and, like me, don’t have access to journals behind paywalls, you can download an uncorrected proof from the authors’ ResearchGate page. You’ll notice a few typos in the proof such as “fiend” instead of ”friend.” 🙂

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.

Study Suggests Clients Don’t Dropout of ERP for OCD More than for Any Other Treatment

A common figure for the dropout rate of exposure and response prevention (ERP) for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder is about 25%.  During one OCD workshop I attended, 2 different presenters insinuated that these high rates of dropout were the result of one particularly overzealous researcher who pushed clients too hard! They suggested that, anecdotally, most people with OCD can tolerate exposure-work reasonably well.

A recent study from Utah State professor Michael Twohig’s lab decided to take a closer look at this.

Meta-Analysis

The researchers collected 21 studies of ERP for OCD and conducted a meta-analysis of dropout rates. In a meta-analysis, researchers try to compute variables in order to compare results across multiple studies with different methodologies.

The researchers looked at refusal of treatment and dropout. They also defined what they called “attrition” as a combination of: a.) people who refuse the treatment (i.e., ERP) altogether; b.) people who begin ERP treatment and dropout prematurely. They noted that few researchers track refusal rates, so this remains an understudied variable.

What they found

The researchers found that overall attrition (refusal + dropout) was 18.7%, 12.0% refused treatment, and 14.7% began treatment before dropping out. They did not find any strong predictors of dropout.

In comparing their results to other published research, the authors observed that the dropout rate of 18.7% is similar to those found for PTSD (18.3%) and major depressive disorder (17.5%) and for cognitive behavioral therapy across disorders (26.2%).

Summary

As many therapists are reluctant to use exposure, this study is important in providing evidence that people with OCD may be as open to ERP as they are to any other evidence-based treatment. This is important because ERP has the greatest research support and many people with OCD struggle to find therapists who offer effective treatment.

If you’d like to read the study yourself, you can download a pdf here.

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.

Is Exposure Practice More Effective in the Morning?

Some studies have looked at enhancing exposure therapy by administering glucocorticoids, steroid hormones that increase levels of cortisol in the body. The exact mechanisms are not quite understood but studies have found that participants given glucocorticoids show better outcomes in exposure therapy for people with spider phobia (Soravia et al., 2014) and fear of heights (de Quervain et al., 2011). It is speculated that higher levels of cortisol enhance learning during exposure.

Rather than rely on drug administration, a new study researcher Dr. Alicia Meuret and colleagues studied a more naturalistic means to harness the exposure-enhancing effects of higher cortisol. People naturally have higher levels of cortisol in the mornings upon awakening.

In a blog post about the study, Dr. Meuret is quoted:

“The hormone cortisol is thought to facilitate fear extinction in certain therapeutic situations,” said Meuret, lead author on the research. “Drugs to enhance fear extinction are being investigated, but they can be difficult to administer and have yielded mixed results. The findings of our study promote taking advantage of two simple and naturally occurring agents – our own cortisol and time of day.”

Study

In this new study by Dr. Meuret and colleagues, 26 people with panic disorder were treated with 3 sessions of weekly exposure therapy followed by a fourth session 2 months later. Participants collected saliva samples at set points during the day which the researchers tested for cortisol levels.

Findings

Consistent with prior studies, the researchers found that higher cortisol levels were associated with a quicker response to treatment.

Moreover, participants who had morning sessions—when natural cortisol levels are higher—showed greater improvements at the end of treatment and 3 months later than participants who attended evening sessions, when cortisol levels are lower.

Some final thoughts

It’s important to keep these results in context. This was a pilot study showing a large effect in a small sample. Results in smaller samples are more prone to being influenced by outliers or other factors, and this study needs replication in order to be more confident about the findings. In particular, it’s possible that therapist expectancy may have had an effect here, as it doesn’t appear the therapists were blinded to the study hypotheses. Nevertheless, this is an intriguing and interesting study.

Limitations aside this study does suggest that—all things being equal—it might be advantageous to schedule exposure sessions earlier in the morning when cortisol levels are higher. The mechanism is not quite clear, but there is evidence that cortisol may enhance learning associated with exposure.

You can read the original blog post about the study on the Southern Methodist University website.

If you’d like to download a copy of the journal article, it is currently available on the authors’ ResearchGate page.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic.

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.

UPCOMING TRAINING EVENTS

An Introduction to Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Traditional and Inhibitory Learning Approaches

Dr. Brian Pilecki
January 29, 2021 from 12:00pm-1:30pm PST
Exposure therapy is the gold-standard treatment for anxiety and obsessive compulsive and related disorders. The aim of this workshop is to provide a solid foundation in theory and knowledge for those newer to exposure therapy. This workshop will include a brief history of exposure therapy, including a description of its roots in classical and operant conditioning. Read More.


Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Guide Flexible Exposure

Dr. Brian Thompson
February 26, 2021 from 1-2:30pm

Drawing from the ACT model, participants will learn to conceptualize and create exposure exercises to maximize flexibility. We will explore common pitfalls in using ACT as a context for exposure and how to create ACT-consistent exposure exercises for clients who are skeptical of “acceptance” and appear disinterested when you try to engage them about values. The presenter will use practice-based data to support these principles (Thompson, Twohig, & Luoma, in press). Read More.


An Introduction to Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy for Clinicians

Dr. Brian Pilecki and Jason Luoma, Ph.D.
March 26, 2021 from 9am-12:10pm

Psychedelic assisted therapy is emerging as a highly effective form of mental health treatment. This workshop will provide health care professionals an overview of this new clinical area. The workshop will highlight the importance of preparation and integration in therapy using a harm reduction approach. The current legal status of psychedelics will be reviewed, including Oregon’s recent passing of an initiative to legalize psilocybin-assisted therapy. Finally, diversity issues around lack of access for underserved and non-majority populations will be explored. Read More.


How to be Experiential in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Jason Luoma, Ph.D.
April 23, 2021 from 12-1pm

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is, at its core, an experiential treatment, but is frequently delivered in a non-experiential way. Experiential learning involves going beyond verbal discussion, insight, and explanations of experience. But how do we do this in ACT and how do we know when we are spending too much time engaged in non-experiential modes of learning? This workshop will outline a simple model you can use to identify when you are in less or more experiential modes during therapy and easy methods to switch to more experiential modes. You will then have a chance to practice it in breakout groups and get feedback. Read More.


Case Conceptualization in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Dr. Brian Pilecki
May 21, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop provides a chance to learn concrete methods for conceptualizing cases from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Formulating a useful case conceptualization is a foundational clinical skill that is essential in delivering effective treatment, and one that can be often overlooked in the process of working with clients. Participants will learn several formats for doing formal case conceptualization outside of session as a means to further develop knowledge and skill with ACT theory, as well as to learn a means to enhance treatment planning. The importance of ongoing case conceptualization throughout a course of treatment will be emphasized, as well as common pitfalls in conceptualizing client problems. Participants will also have a chance to practice newly learned skills with a case in breakout groups. Read More.


ACT Precision Training: In-Session Case Conceptualization in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Help You be Focused and Strategic in Your Interventions

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
June 18, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop provides a chance to learn and practice in-session, in-the-moment case conceptualization of cases from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This workshop focuses on helping you use ACT theory & in-session clinical markers to make more precise and strategic interventions. The main goal of this workshop is to help you become more adept at identifying in-session client behaviors that are indicators for particular ACT processes that are likely to be most relevant. The workshop uses a process we call ACT Circuit Training, which involves intensive analysis of a video of an ACT session and intentional practice in conceptualizing client behavior and generating possible ACT responses, followed by discussion and feedback. Read More.


ACT Agility Training: In-Session Case Conceptualization in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Increase Flexible Responding

Jason Luoma, Ph.D. and Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
July 16, 2021 from 12-2pm

This workshop provides a chance to learn and practice in-session, in-the-moment case conceptualization of cases from the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This workshop is intended to help therapists be more flexible and nimble in their use of ACT processes, strengthening their ability to fluidly shift as needed between processes within sessions. Therapist learning ACT often develop tunnel vision, focusing too much on particular processes or responding rigidly when more flexibility is needed. Read More.


Therapy and Research in Psychedelic Science (TRIPS) Seminar Series

Second Friday of each month from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM (PT)

TRIPS is an online seminar series that hosts speakers discussing science-informed presentations and discussions about psychedelics to educate healthcare professionals. This series was created to guide healthcare providers and students preparing to be professionals towards the most relevant, pragmatic, and essential information about psychedelic-assisted therapy, changing legal statuses, and harm reduction approaches in order to better serve clients and communities. This seminar series is a fundraiser for our clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for social anxiety disorder that Portland Psychotherapy investigators are preparing for and starting in the Fall of 2021. All proceeds after presenter remuneration will go to fund this clinical trial. Read more.

December 11th, 2020 – Ethical and Legal Considerations in Providing Psychedelic Integration Therapy with Brian Pilecki, Ph.D. & Jason Luoma, Ph.D.
January 8th, 2021 – What’s it Like to Trip? The Patient Experience in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy with Brian Pilecki, Ph.D.
February 12th, 2021 – 5-MEO-DMT with Rafael Lancelotta, M.S.
March 12th, 2021 – What does Psilocybin-Assisted Therapy for Depression Look Like? A Clinical Case Presentation based on a Recent Clinical Trial from Johns Hopkins with Alan K. Davis, Ph.D.
April 9th, 2021 – Gregory Wells, Ph.D.
May 14th, 2021  Research on MDMA and Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy: An Overview of the Evidence for Clinicians with Jason Luoma, Ph.D.