The Effects of Prolonged Exposure on Substance Use in Patients With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Substance Use Disorders

Jessica M. Peirce, Rebecca L. Schacht, Robert K. Brooner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite research demonstrating the benefit of exposure-based therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in patients with co-occurring substance use disorders, there remains a strong clinical expectation that this treatment will exacerbate substance use or other psychiatric symptoms. The present study evaluated within-session and session-to-session changes in (a) craving and use of substances for a range of drug classes and (b) symptoms of PTSD and other psychiatric distress in a sample of 44 SUD patients who received prolonged exposure (PE) therapy for PTSD. Visual analog scales showed no within-session increases in craving, except for cocaine, within Session 8. Across sessions, craving scores dropped for heroin, methadone, benzodiazepines, and cocaine; no increases in craving were found. Past-week substance use reported at each session did not differ. The severity of PTSD symptoms and self-reported serious emotional problems decreased from Session 1 to subsequent sessions, with no increases or decreases in other psychiatric, social, or medical problems. Finally, PTSD severity was unrelated to substance use reported 1 or 2 weeks later. Substance use during the past week was associated with higher PTSD severity scores at the next session, B = 6.86 (SE = 2.87), p =.018, but was not associated 2 weeks later. These findings indicate that the concern that exposure therapy for PTSD will increase SUD patients’ substance use or other psychiatric symptoms may be unwarranted, and, thus, SUD patients, including those who are actively using, should have access to effective treatments for PTSD, like PE.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)465-476
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of traumatic stress
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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