Edna B. Foa, PhD

PHILADELPHIA — Edna B. Foa, PhD, the director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Penn Medicine, has been named the recipient of the 2018 Carol Johnson Humanitarian Award by Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR), Philadelphia’s rape crisis center. The award is presented to a person who has shown “outstanding commitment to making [the] community safer for victims of sexual assault.”

Foa, who is also a professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is an internationally renowned authority on the psychopathology and treatment of anxiety. She is one of the world’s leading experts in the areas of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and developed prolonged exposure therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The prevalence of rape is about three percent of the population; of these, 60 percent will have had PTSD at some point in their lives, and nearly one in five currently has the condition.

In prolonged exposure therapy, patients revisit the traumatic event in order to help them heal. It involves two types of exposures: imaginal and in vivo. In imaginal exposure, patients recount the traumatic event aloud including details of their thoughts and feelings.

“Through this work, patients change their perspective on themselves and the world,” Foa says. “They might have blamed themselves for what happened but come to realize that it was not their fault. Also, their memories stop eliciting anxiety, because they realize that remembering a traumatic event itself, while temporarily stressful, is not dangerous. The distress that comes with reliving the trauma usually dissipates within a few sessions. Once patients process the memory, they can put it into the past. They gain control over the traumatic memory and the re-experiencing symptoms diminish.”

In in vivo exposure, patients create a list of situations that they avoid because of the trauma. Therapists then instruct the patient to confront these situations, beginning with the easiest and proceeding to the more difficult ones. For example, rape victims with PTSD may avoid visiting places that remind them of the attack or watching a movie or television show about rape. But carrying out these activities, Foa says, “allows them to go back to where they were before the trauma, gradually reclaiming their lives.”

In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) of sixty-one girls aged 13-18 recruited at a rape crisis center in Philadelphia, Foa found that after PE, 83 percent of patients no longer had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to 54 percent who no longer had PTSD after only receiving supportive counseling treatment. "They get used to thinking and talking about the memory and realizing that it was in the past, that it's not in the present anymore,” she says. “Eventually, the traumatic experience becomes remote and they get closure."

Foa has lectured on and provided workshops on prolonged exposure therapy internationally; it is used in many cases beyond rape including domestic violence, terrorism, natural disasters, combat and accidents. It has become one of the preferred treatment for the military in helping soldiers overcome PTSD from battle.

Foa has received numerous awards over a four-decades-long career, including being named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010, the Distinguished Scientist Award from the Scientific Section of the American Psychological Association, the first annual Outstanding Research Contribution Award from the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, the Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Clinical Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, an honorary doctorate of philosophy degree from the University of Basel, and the Exemplary Contribution to the Field of Psychology and Humanity Award from the Philadelphia Society of Clinical Psychologists.

Foa has authored 20 books and hundreds of peer-reviewed publications including the text “Treating the Trauma of Rape: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for PTSD,” which she co-authored. Born in Israel, she received her PhD in clinical psychology and personality from the University of Missouri and her she BA in psychology and literature from Bar Ilan University in her native country.

In support of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the 2018 Carol Johnson Humanitarian Award will be presented to Foa at WOAR’s annual Bridge of Courage Awards Reception and Silent Auction on Tuesday, April 10th at 5:30 PM at Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia. 

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.6 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $494 million awarded in the 2019 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 43,900 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2019, Penn Medicine provided more than $583 million to benefit our community.

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