Brief Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Exposure for Panic Disorder: A Pilot Study
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Cognitive and biobehavioral coping skills are central to psychosocial therapies and are taught to facilitate and improve exposure therapy. While traditional coping skills are aimed at controlling maladaptive thoughts or dysregulations in physiology, newer approaches that explore acceptance, defusion, and values-based direction have been gaining interest. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) involves creating an open, nonjudgmental stance toward whatever thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations arise in a given moment, experiencing them for what they are and moving toward them while inner experiences such as anxiety are present. This approach can be seen as consistent with exposure therapies and may be utilized to organize and facilitate engagement in exposure exercises. This study examines the feasibility and efficacy for combining a brief ACT protocol with traditional exposure therapy. Eleven patients with panic disorder with or without agoraphobia received 4 sessions of ACT followed by 6 sessions of exposure therapy, with data collected on a weekly basis. Acquisition of ACT skills and their application during exposure was monitored using a novel “think-aloud” technology. Treatment was associated with clinically significant improvements in panic symptom severity, willingness to allow inner experiences to occur, and reductions in avoidant behavior. Although preliminary, results suggest that our brief training in ACT only (as assessed prior to exposure exercises) and in combination with exposure therapy was acceptable to patients and offered benefits on the order of large effect sizes. Clinical and research implications are discussed.