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PTSD: Using a Seasoned Approach in a New Way

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

When we think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), we often attach the diagnosis to military veterans. While those who have served our country clearly are at a higher risk of developing PTSD than the general population, PTSD affects others too.

PTSD develops after a person has experienced an extremely traumatic event involving physical harm or a threat to physical harm. The person may have experienced the harm personally or may have witnessed it. Just a few of the events that can precede PTSD include:

  • Combat
  • Muggings
  • Rapes and other types of sexual assaults
  • Accidents that involve deaths or serious injuries (car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes)
  • Natural disasters
  • Bombings and other terrorist attacks
  • Shootings
  • Domestic and child abuse
  • Torture
  • Kidnappings

Because PTSD affects more than the military, treatments have been developed for non-military populations with the condition. One of these treatments – prolonged exposure – was found to be so successful in treating survivors of physical and sexual abuse that it has recently been used to treat veterans with PTSD.

Prolonged exposure entails encouraging the person to make an effort to remember every detail of the very event he or she is trying to forget. Sounds cruel, right? But in fact, research has found that trying to forget something without fully processing it can be incredibly harmful. The person may harbor feelings of guilt, regret, and worthlessness that can’t be resolved until the memories of the event are faced openly.

Prolonged exposure isn’t as abrupt as it sounds. Clients are educated about PTSD, taught how to breathe in the face of anxiety, and asked to practice behaviors in the real world that they have been avoiding before talking about the actual trauma. When they are ready, clients talk about the trauma with their therapist, over and over again. While it might seem counterintuitive to talk about something so stressful, it actually helps clients gain better control over their feelings and thoughts about the event and helps them realize that they don’t have to be afraid of their memories.

60 Minutes recently covered the use of prolonged exposure (as well as a second intervention – cognitive processing therapy) to treat veterans with PTSD in a compelling segment. Watch it here, and learn more about how the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is addressing PTSD by visiting the National Center for PTSD.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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