What Is ERP Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you have ever heard two different people talking about ERP psychology, there is a chance the two conversations did not perfectly align. Like many other abbreviations, ERP can stand for more than one concept.

In psychology, “ERP” can stand for either “event-related potential” or “exposure and response prevention.”

Although both subjects help mental health professionals understand human behavior, cognitive processes, and mental health, they are distinct. Keep reading to learn more about each of these topics and how they might apply to your life.

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Learn how ERP psychology might improve your mental health

What is event-related potential?

In reference to brainwaves, “ERP” stands for “event-related potential.” Event-related potentials (also known as evoked-related potential, evoked responses, or evoked oscillations) focus on studying the brain’s electrical activity in direct response to a specific event or a sensory, cognitive, or motor stimulus. A highly sensitive device called an electroencephalogram (EEG) can measure the brain’s real-time neural responses in microvolts via electrodes that are adhered to the scalp. EEGs can measure activity to the millisecond.

Using event-related potential in psychology and medicine

Event-related potentials are essential elements of neuroscience psychology. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) are such perceptive machines that researchers can analyze the timing and intensity of event-related potentials to detect an individual’s cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, and language comprehension.

The latency between the stimulating action and the brain’s reaction represents the brain’s processing speed, and the amplitude of the waveform indicates the brain’s activation of recruited neurons to process the information. If an individual is tested throughout their life, medical professionals can identify cognitive changes — including cognitive decline — before symptoms are externally expressed.

In short, ERPs are powerful, noninvasive tools that allow neuroscientists to:

  • Study an individual’s cognitive processes
  • Diagnose and study cognitive disorders
  • Explore developmental changes in the brain over time

ERPs provide an objective dataset that can help psychiatrists arrive at an accurate diagnosis for individuals experiencing mental issues such as schizophrenia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Following diagnosis and intervention, ERPs can be retested to assess the effectiveness of psychological treatments.

As ERPs bridge the gap between psychology and neuroscience, they are also applicable to medicine, as one might expect. For example, ERPs offer auditory screening opportunities among children and adolescents. Because the EEG records responses to stimuli, the doctor can readily determine whether the person can hear the auditory stimulus through an objective technique. ERPs can also be used to diagnose:

  • Brain stem lesions
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Comas
  • Epilepsy
  • Encephalitis
  • Dementia
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Visual system disorders (especially before birth and in newborns)

What is exposure and response prevention?

“ERP” can also stand for “exposure and response prevention,” which is a therapeutic approach employed primarily for people with anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress (PTS), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Exposure and response prevention therapy aims to help individuals gradually confront their fears in order to reduce the associated distress and compulsive behaviors. It is particularly effective for individuals with OCD: In one study, researchers found that up to 60% of people who participated in ERP experienced clinically significant improvement and long-term relief from their OCD symptoms.

It is important to note that while ERP therapy can be very effective, it is essential that it is conducted in partnership with a licensed health professional who understands the ethics of the approach.

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How does exposure and response prevention therapy work?

The process of exposure and response prevention therapy can typically be broken down into five steps. 

  1. Identification of triggers. Together, the individual and their licensed mental health professional identify specific triggers that provoke anxiety and/or compulsions. These triggers can range from situations to physical objects and vary widely.
  2. Hierarchy development. The licensed professional and the individual organize the triggers from least to most distressing. This hierarchy acts as a guide for gradual exposure.
  3. Exposure. Starting with the least distressing trigger, the individual is systematically exposed to the stimulus, often in a controlled environment. The trigger may be presented in the individual’s imagination, through discussion, or in real life.
  4. Response prevention. In this critical step, individuals refrain from engaging in their usual anxiety-reducing patterns. 
  5. Anxiety management and habituation. Over time and with consistent ERP, individuals often learn that their imagined consequences of facing their fears are unlikely to occur, and their exposure anxiety will likely lessen over time. Habituation is another key factor in ERP.

Working with a mental health professional can help ensure that an individual moves at a pace that’s reasonably comfortable for them. If at any time the process becomes too overwhelming, the mental health professional will be there to intervene. Individuals can stop, take a break, and try again when they feel ready.

Using exposure and response prevention techniques

It is critical to note that exposure and response prevention is not simply facing fears — exposure is only half the process. ERP is also about applying response prevention techniques learned in therapy. This practice helps individuals recognize and challenge their beliefs about the necessity of their compulsions. Like any skill, this requires time and repetition to build up.

Over time, the therapist might recommend that the individual practice exposure and response prevention therapy on their own. Typically, this will only happen once they have demonstrated their fluency in the technique. Doing the work independently as well as alongside a therapist can be a powerful confidence booster and assist in an individual’s recovery journey.

How does CBT differ from exposure and response prevention?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that operates on the assumption that people react and respond to different situations based on their thoughts and feelings about them. The idea behind CBT is to get individuals to recognize which of their thoughts are unhelpful and then shift them to be more productive. By changing how one views a situation, they can also shift their behaviors and choose healthier responses.

Exposure and response prevention is a branch of cognitive behavioral therapy in that both approaches offer systematic and practical methods of changing thoughts and behaviors. However, unlike CBT, ERP relies on an individual’s exposure to the feared stimulus along with a decision to resist engaging in any of the compulsions, avoidance behaviors, or rituals.

Supplementing exposure and response prevention with therapy

Anxiety-based mental health conditions like OCD and PTSD can be challenging to overcome alone and often require professional intervention. If you are experiencing symptoms that are affecting your daily functioning, speaking with a therapist could be helpful.

Traditional treatments for these mental health disorders can be costly and time-consuming, which may pose difficult barriers to getting the support you need. One alternative is online therapy, which is easily available through platforms like BetterHelp. With online therapy, you can connect with a licensed therapist using your preferred method, be it video chats, phone calls, or in-app messaging. The flexibility and convenience of this option may make it right for you.

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Learn how ERP psychology might improve your mental health

Research has proven the effectiveness of online therapy in addressing a range of mental health concerns. Because numerous studies have shown that exposure and response prevention (ERP) is an effective first-line treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder in particular, researchers sought to know whether these same results could be found using online ERP interventions. In one study, ERP was delivered via videoconferencing to 3,552 adults with an OCD diagnosis. Researchers found “clinically and statistically significant improvements, with a 43.4% mean reduction in obsessive-compulsive symptoms.” Participants also experienced reductions in anxiety, depression, and symptoms of stress, as well as improvements in quality of life. 

Takeaway

“ERP” can refer to two distinct ideas: “event-related potential” or “exposure and response prevention.” While the concepts are largely unrelated, they each contribute to psychology in a meaningful way. As researchers expand their knowledge of the brain, professionals become more equipped to treat cognitive conditions, brain injuries, and mental health concerns. If you are facing issues that feel overwhelming or would like more insight into your symptoms, reaching out to a mental health professional could be a useful next step. Even if you are pressed for time, online therapy platforms can help you get the advice and guidance you need according to your schedule.

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