PTSD: How Can Therapy Help?

 PTSD: How Can Therapy Help?

In our previous post we discussed the causes and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  As a quick refresher, PTSD is a psychological disorder that develops as a result of prolonged periods of stress caused by one or more traumatic events. PTSD may involve periods of extreme anxiety and stress, irritability, hypervigilance, sleep disturbances, depression and thoughts of suicide. Accordingly, it can negatively affect an individual's performance at work, their interpersonal relationships, and other social interactions. Fortunately, a number of treatment methods for PTSD have been developed that have proven to be effective in treating the disorder.

Research indicates that a number of trauma focused psychotherapies such as trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), prolonged exposure therapy, hypnotherapy and psychodynamic therapy are effective in treating PTSD.   Medications such as antidepressants or sleep medication may be used in conjunction with therapy to assist in treating some of the negative symptoms associated with the disorder.

Although trauma focused therapy approaches differ in important ways, they share significant elements.  First, any trauma therapy should begin with some psychoeducation about how trauma effects the way we feel, think and behave.  For example, a common reaction to trauma is a perceived sense of threat that tends to persist long after the real threat has ended.  This heightened state of arousal can escalate to panic very unexpectedly and leave people feeling terrified.  These symptoms of course are very disorienting and troubling but understanding them as a normal human reaction to trauma that it will not last forever is comforting. 

Understanding negative symptoms in the context of PTSD is of course not enough. Early stages of therapy involve teaching techniques that work to reduce arousal and help a person begin to feel safe again.  grounding and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness strategies can be very effective in reducing levels of arousal and associated feelings of fear or anger.  These skills are important throughout the therapeutic process as they help the client tolerate deeper trauma work and control levels of arousal both in and out of sessions. 

Once the client's safety has been established and the client has developed skills to help them manage distress, the therapist can begin to work with the client to overcome their trauma. An essential part of all trauma therapy is re-processing of the trauma.  The goal here is to desensitize the client to the impact of the trauma and in time help them to integrate the trauma into themselves and their lives in a way that fosters healing.  The processing of the trauma can be done in many different ways.  It can be done through imaginal exposure in which the client imagines or recalls the feared event as vividly as possible.  Systematic desensitization can also be used.  This is when the individual is exposed to successively more fear-inducing thoughts or memories and this exposure is paired with relaxation.  It may involve narrative techniques whereby the therapist has the individual write down or mentally visualize the traumatic event in a controlled setting. Additionally, the therapist may actually work with the client to physically revisit the site of the trauma.  This is done in a highly controlled way which allows clients the opportunity to re-examine the event while receiving maximum support.  The aim of these interventions is to reduce the level of disturbance associated with the trauma. 

Although trauma therapies differ in important ways not addressed in this blog, they all work to achieve the same goal of reducing the negative symptoms of PTSD and helping people integrate the traumas they have experienced into their lives. It is not uncommon for therapists to take an eclectic approach, combining elements from different approaches during treatment.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, trauma focused psychotherapy is effective in treating PTSD for a number of reasons. First it helps people understand the impact of trauma on the human brain which helps them better understand their symptoms.  Second, it provides people with valuable information on how to reduce their levels of arousal so they can achieve better sleep and improve functioning in daily life. Finally, it teaches people how to identify and deal with the possible shame, guilt or other negative beliefs about themselves that may have developed or resurfaced as a result of experiencing the trauma.   

The Institute also identifies a number of strategies that people can do on their own to further their progress. These include:

  • Setting realistic goals
  • Engaging in mild physical activity
  • Connecting with social supports such as trusted friends or family members
  • Remembering that symptoms will improve slowly over time rather than immediately

It is very important to remember that treatment for PTSD is an ongoing process and therapy may take 6 to 12 weeks or in some cases much longer.  Unfortunately, if left untreated, PTSD and its effects have the potential to last a lifetime.

Overcoming trauma is not something we need to do alone.  The therapists at Edgar Psychological have the clinical training as well as the compassionate and collaborative nature to accompany you on your journey to healing.  Don’t suffer in silence any longer.  If you believe you are suffering from the lasting effects of a trauma we can help.  You can reach us at 780-860-7338 or email us at contact@edgarpsychological.com.