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Crushing Cravings: Benefits of Cue Exposure Therapy

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While many self-help fellowships, such as AA, suggest avoiding “people, places and things” to avoid relapse, completely adhering to that mantra can be difficult – if not impossible.

In truth, potential triggers for addictive behavior permeate everyday life. Whether it’s the barrage of beer commercials during a football game or a drug scene in popular movie, life is full of would-be triggers for individuals who struggle with addiction.

While a recovering alcoholic can avoid their favorite former watering hole, can they avoid all restaurants that serve wine or beer? Probably not. Though avoidance isn’t impossible in theory, it’s a tall order in reality. However, according to Cue Exposure Therapy (CET), avoiding triggers is not really the answer. Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

What is Cue Exposure Therapy?

Popularized in the 1950s, traditional Exposure Therapy is a popular intervention method designed to treat anxiety disorders and phobias by exposing individuals to specific items and environments that cause stress or fear. Although CET shares much of the same format of Exposure Therapy, Cue Exposure Therapy is specifically designed to treat, or significantly lessen, cravings associated with substance abuse disorders.

To stifle cravings, participants in CET are purposively exposed to certain stimuli to desensitize, or unlearn, conditioned brain responses that typically lead to addictive behaviors.

How Does Cue Exposure Therapy Work?

While the process of retraining brain function during CET is somewhat complex, the treatment model is relatively simple. Simply put, triggers are essentially stimuli that excite pleasure centers of the brain. After years of use, the brain is conditioned to associate these triggers with the pleasurable effects of using, which leads to cravings and sometimes relapse. By purposely exposing participants to these triggers – or cues – Cue Exposure Therapy is designed to progressively break the mental links that typically precede using.

For example, in Cue Exposure Therapy, an alcoholic may be directed to hold a cold beer or smell alcohol. Initially, the exposure to these triggers prompts the brain to “expect” consumption. However, according to proponents of CET, frequent exposure to these triggers – without drinking – will lessen the likelihood of a trigger-induced relapse in the future by desensitizing the brain’s reaction. Along with exposure to alcohol-related cues, participants may also be asked to share their feelings or thoughts to assess changes in mood.

What Are the Benefits of Cue Exposure Therapy?

While studies measuring the effectiveness of CET are limited, the therapeutic approach has proven effective in smoking cessation, and many experts believe CET shows promise for treating other addictions. Cue Exposure Therapy is designed to provide two main benefits for individuals suffering from addiction. As stated, the first intended benefit is to lessen the brain’s association between certain real-life triggers and addictive behavior. The second benefit is a by-product of this progressive disassociation: the strengthening of coping skills.

Coping skills are methods someone uses to deal with stressful situations, and these play a vital role in recovery. By experiencing a stressful situation in a controlled environment, an individual’s coping skills can progressively strengthen.

Practicing experiential coping skills, coupled with the unlearning of certain triggers, may prepare some to successfully resist cravings in fragile and stressful real-world situations.

Additional Reading:  Small Town Takes Radical Approach to Addiction Treatment


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