Living through a traumatic event can leave lasting scars. Even after a physical trauma or injury has healed, patients can still suffer from acute emotional distress in relation to the said trauma. These patients suffer from the so-called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a real disorder and should be taken seriously. It can cause mental and physical problems, negatively affects health outcomes, reduces quality of life, and increases health care costs. Some of the overt effects of PTSD are
- Flashbacks, or feeling like the event is happening again
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
- Feeling alone
- Angry outbursts
- Feeling worried, guilty or sad
There are several interventions used to treat PTSD. One type of intervention is called exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy, as the term implies, exposes a patient to the source of the stress, e.g. reliving a traumatic experience. However, many health professionals refrain from using exposure therapy for fear of causing too much distress for recent trauma survivors. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia conducted a study which compared exposure therapy to another intervention called cognitive restructuring. The latter “focuses on changing maladaptive thoughts and responses to a traumatic event.” The study looked at 90 patients who had PTSD following a non-sexual assault or a vehicular accident. The study participants were randomly split into 3 groups.
- 30 participants were given 5 x 90-minute weekly exposure therapy sessions.
- 30 participants were given 5 x 90-minute weekly cognitive restructuring therapy sessions.
- 30 participants were placed on the waiting list and served as control.
The study results showed that participants who underwent exposure therapy fared better and exhibited reduced distressed ratings compared to the other two groups. More patients in the exposure therapy group met the criteria for having PSTD at the end of the study. Also, more patients in this group achieved full remission.
The authors also observed that
“Despite some concerns that patients may not be able to manage the distress elicited by prolonged exposure, there was no difference in drop-out rates for the prolonged exposure and cognitive restructuring groups (17 percent vs. 23 percent).”
The study results indicate that exposure therapy can be an effective intervention in preventing the progression from acute stress disorder to a full-blown PTSD.
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