Understanding PTSD Treatment

There are many treatments available for PTSD that have been supported by several rigorous peer-reviewed research projects (i.e., empirically-supported treatments). Such therapies, when provided by appropriately trained professionals, can help reduce PTSD symptoms, improve quality of life, and develop skills maintaining good mental health.

            What does “empirically-supported treatment” mean?
An empirically-supported treatment – sometimes called an evidence-based treatment – refers to a treatment:
1) that appears to produce significant improvements in symptoms;
2) that has been tested in several rigorous research studies conducted by scientists and
health professionals;
3) where results published in peer-reviewed journals; and
4) where results replicated by more than one group of researchers.

All of the PTSD treatments described in the following section are empirically-supported treatments; however, the list is not comprehensive and there are other empirically-supported treatments for PTSD. Researchers have demonstrated the following treatments appear to work well for diverse groups of people who have been diagnosed with PTSD. The following treatments also follow the recent American Psychological Association guidelines for empirically-supported PTSD treatments. In all cases, persons interested in PTSD treatment should consult with an appropriately trained professional. If you would like more information comparing PTSD therapy options, click here.

Empirically-Supported PTSD Treatments

  • Prolonged Exposure (PE): Imagine a child who is very afraid of swimming – how would you help the child overcome their fear? Perhaps, “start small with a sprinkler, work up to a shallow pool, eventually working up to a deeper pool, and perhaps eventually to a lake or ocean”? Essentially you want to help them gradually develop new skills, confront their fears, and decrease their anxiety. Prolonged Exposure, or PE, helps a person confront difficulties with trauma in a similar fashion. Once a person has identified their challenges, developed their goals, and is comfortable enough with their therapist, they can gradually confront their trauma with help from their therapist. Gradual exposure to the trauma story (starting small and working up slowly) in a safe and therapeutic environment can help to reduce PTSD symptoms. Therapists can help to make sense of traumatic experiences and find ways to move forward towards an improved quality of life. Click here for more details.
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT): Traumatic experiences can have ripple effects through many areas of life. Once the effects are identified, a CPT therapist can help a person to work towards solutions and generate a more adaptive way of moving forward. CPT can help a person to think differently about the negative thoughts they have regarding a trauma. Doing so can change how a person feels about and interacts with the trauma, which can reduce the impact of PTSD symptoms in many different parts of a person’s life. CPT involves talking with a therapist about the negative thoughts related to a trauma and doing short writing assignments. Click here for more details.
  • Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Traumatic experiences can be difficult to make sense of and change the way a person thinks about the world. For some people discussing the trauma can be too difficult. Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can help a person process and make sense of a trauma, which can help reduce PTSD symptoms. EMDR involves a person recalling a trauma in their own mind while paying attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound (e.g., a finger waving side to side, a light, a tone) produced by a therapist. Click here for more details.

In addition to the above treatments, the American Psychological Association suggests Narrative Therapy and Brief Eclectic Therapy are promising therapies, and researchers are currently exploring how well they work in different settings with different populations.

References and further reading