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Treatment of PTSD

A National Center for PTSD Fact Sheet

Introduction

This fact sheet describes elements common to many treatment modalities for PTSD, including education, exposure, exploration of feelings and beliefs, and coping skills training. Additionally, the most common treatment modalities are discussed, including cognitive-behavioral treatment, pharmacotherapy, EMDR, group treatment, and psychodynamic treatment.

Common Components of PTSD Treatment:

Treatment for PTSD typically begins with a detailed evaluation, and development of a treatment plan that meets the unique needs of the survivor. Generally, PTSD-specific-treatment is begun only when the survivor is safely removed from a crisis situation. For instance, if currently exposed to trauma (such as by ongoing domestic or community violence, abuse, or homelessness), severely depressed or suicidal, experiencing extreme panic or disorganized thinking, or in need of drug or alcohol detoxification, addressing these crisis problems becomes part of the first treatment phase.

  • Educating trauma survivors and their families about how persons get PTSD, how PTSD affects survivors and their loved ones, and other problems that commonly come along with PTSD symptoms. Understanding that PTSD is a medically recognized anxiety disorder that occurs in normal individuals under extremely stressful conditions is essential for effective treatment.
  • Exposure to the event via imagery allows the survivor to reexperience the event in a safe, controlled environment, while also carefully examining their reactions and beliefs in relation to that event.
  • Examining and resolving strong feelings such as anger, shame, or guilt, which are common among survivors of trauma
  • Teaching the survivor to cope with post-traumatic memories, reminders, reactions, and feelings without becoming overwhelmed or emotionally numb. Trauma memories usually do not go away entirely as a result of therapy, but become manageable with new coping skills.

Therapeutic Approaches Commonly Used to Treat PTSD:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) involves working with cognitions to change emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Exposure therapy, is one form of CBT unique to trauma treatment which uses careful, repeated, detailed imagining of the trauma (exposure) in a safe, controlled context, to help the survivor face and gain control of the fear and distress that was overwhelming in the trauma. In some cases, trauma memories or reminders can be confronted all at once ("flooding"). For other individuals or traumas it is preferable to work gradually up to the most severe trauma by using relaxation techniques and either starting with less upsetting life stresses or by taking the trauma one piece at a time ("desensitization").

Along with exposure, CBT for trauma includes learning skills for coping with anxiety (such as breathing retraining or biofeedback) and negative thoughts ("cognitive restructuring"), managing anger, preparing for stress reactions ("stress inoculation"), handling future trauma symptoms, as well as addressing urges to use alcohol or drugs when they occur ("relapse prevention"), and communicating and relating effectively with people ("social skills" or marital therapy).

 

  • Pharmacotherapy (medication) can reduce the anxiety, depression, and insomnia often experienced with PTSD, and in some cases may help relieve the distress and emotional numbness caused by trauma memories. Several kinds of antidepressant drugs have achieved improvement in most (but not all) clinical trials, and some other classes of drugs have shown promise. At this time no particular drug has emerged as a definitive treatment for PTSD, although medication is clearly useful for the symptom relief that makes it possible for survivors to participate in psychotherapy.

 

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new treatment of traumatic memories which involves elements of exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy, combined with techniques (eye movements, hand taps, sounds) which create an alteration of attention back and forth across the person's midline. While the theory and research are still evolving with this form of treatment, there is some evidence that the therapeutic element unique to EMDR, attentional alteration, may facilitate accessing and processing traumatic material.

 

  • Group treatment is often an ideal therapeutic setting because trauma survivors are able to risk sharing traumatic material with the safety, cohesion, and empathy provided by other survivors. As group members achieve greater understanding and resolution of their trauma, they often feel more confident and able to trust. As they discuss and share coping of trauma-related shame, guilt, rage, fear, doubt, and self-condemnation, they prepare themselves to focus on the present rather than the past. Telling one's story (the "trauma narrative") and directly facing the grief, anxiety, and guilt related to trauma enables many survivors to cope with their symptoms, memories, and other aspects of their lives.

 

  • Brief psychodynamic psychotherapy focuses on the emotional conflicts caused by the traumatic event, particularly as they relate to early life experiences. Through the retelling of the traumatic event to a calm, empathic, compassionate and non-judgmental therapist, the survivor achieves a greater sense of self-esteem, develops effective ways of thinking and coping, and more successfully deals with the intense emotions that emerge during therapy. The therapist helps the survivor identify current life situations that set off traumatic memories and worsen PTSD symptoms.

Psychiatric disorders commonly co-occurring with PTSD

Psychiatric disorders commonly co-occurring with PTSD include: depression, alcohol/substance abuse, panic disorder, and other anxiety disorders. Although crises that threaten the safety of the survivor or others must be addressed first, the best treatment results are achieved when both PTSD and the other disorder(s) are treated together rather than one after the other. This is especially true for PTSD and alcohol/substance abuse.

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD (sometimes called "Disorder of Extreme Stress") is found among individuals who have been exposed to prolonged traumatic circumstances, especially during childhood, such as childhood sexual abuse. Developmental research is revealing that many brain and hormonal changes may occur as a result of early, prolonged trauma, and contribute to difficulties with memory, learning, and regulating impulses and emotions. Combined with a disruptive, abusive home environment which does not foster healthy interaction, these brain and hormonal changes may contribute to severe behavioral difficulties (such as impulsivity, aggression, sexual acting out, eating disorders, alcohol/drug abuse, and self-destructive actions), emotional regulation difficulties (such as intense rage, depression, or panic) and mental difficulties (such as extremely scattered thoughts, dissociation, and amnesia). As adults, these individuals often are diagnosed with depressive disorders, personality disorders or dissociative disorders. Treatment often takes much longer, may progress at a much slower rate, and requires a sensitive and structured treatment program delivered by a trauma specialist.

   

The information on this Web site is presented for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for informed medical advice or training. Do not use this information to diagnose or treat a mental health problem without consulting a qualified health or mental health care provider.

All information contained on these pages is in the public domain unless explicit notice is given to the contrary, and may be copied and distributed without restriction.

For more information call the PTSD Information Line at (802) 296-6300 or send email to ncptsd@ncptsd.org. This page was last updated on Fri Apr 7 11:15:33 2000.

 

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