How is PTSD treated?
Treatments for PTSD usually include psychological and medical treatments. Providing information about the illness, helping the individual manage the trauma by talking about it directly, teaching the person ways to manage symptoms of PTSD, and exploration and modification of inaccurate ways of thinking about the trauma are the usual techniques used in psychotherapy for this illness. Education of PTSD sufferers usually involves teaching individuals about what PTSD is, how many others suffer from the same illness, that it is caused by extraordinary stress rather than weakness, how it is treated, and what to expect in treatment. This education thereby increases the likelihood that inaccurate ideas the person may have about the illness are dispelled, and any shame they may feel about having it is minimized. This may be particularly important in populations like military personnel that may feel particularly stigmatized by the idea of seeing a mental-health professional and therefore avoid doing so.
Teaching people with PTSD practical approaches to coping with what can be very intense and disturbing symptoms has been found to be another useful way to treat the illness. Specifically, helping sufferers learn how to manage their anger and anxiety, improve their communication skills, and use relaxation techniques can help individuals with PTSD gain a sense of mastery over their emotional and physical symptoms. Individual or group cognitive behavioral psychotherapy can help people with PTSD recognize and adjust trauma-related thoughts and beliefs by educating sufferers about the relationships between thoughts and feelings, exploring common negative thoughts held by traumatized individuals, developing alternative interpretations, and by practicing new ways of looking at things. This treatment also involves practicing learned techniques in real-life situations.
Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of cognitive therapy in which the practitioner guides the person with PTSD in talking about the trauma suffered and the negative feelings associated with the events, while focusing on the professional’s rapidly moving finger. While some research indicates this treatment may be effective, it is unclear if this is any more effective than cognitive therapy that is done without the use of rapid eye movement.
Families of PTSD individuals, as well as the sufferer, may benefit from family counseling, couples’ counseling, parenting classes, and conflict-resolution education. Family members may also be able to provide relevant history about their loved one (for example, about emotions and behaviors, drug abuse, sleeping habits, and socialization) that people with the illness are unable or unwilling to share.
Directly addressing the sleep problems that can be part of PTSD has been found to not only help alleviate those problems but to thereby help decrease the symptoms of PTSD in general. Specifically, rehearsing adaptive ways of coping with nightmares (imagery rehearsal therapy), training in relaxation techniques, positive self-talk, and screening for other sleep problems have been found to be particularly helpful in decreasing the sleep problems associated with PTSD.
Medications that are usually used to help PTSD sufferers include serotonergic antidepressants (SSRIs), like fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and paroxetine (Paxil), and medicines that help decrease the physical symptoms associated with illness, like clonidine (Catapres), guanfacine (Tenex), and propranolol. Individuals with PTSD are much less likely to experience a relapse of their illness if antidepressant treatment is continued for at least a year. SSRIs are the first group of medications that have received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of PTSD. These medicines have been found to help PTSD sufferers modify information that is taken in from the environment (stimuli) and to decrease fear. Research also shows that this group of medicines tends to decrease anxiety, depression, and panic. SSRIs may also help reduce aggression, impulsivity, and suicidal thoughts that can be associated with this disorder. Although other medications like duloxetine (Cymbalta), bupropion (Wellbutrin), and venlafaxine (Effexor) are sometimes used to treat PTSD, there is little research that has studied their effectiveness in treating this illness.
Other less directly effective but nevertheless potentially helpful medications for managing PTSD include mood stabilizers like lamotrigine (Lamictal), tiagabine (Gabitril), divalproex sodium (Depakote), as well as mood stabilizers that are also antipsychotics, like risperidone (Risperdal), olanzapine (Zyprexa), and quetiapine (Seroquel). Antipsychotic medicines seem to be most useful in the treatment of PTSD in those who suffer from agitation, dissociation, hypervigilance, intense suspiciousness (paranoia), or brief breaks in being in touch with reality (brief psychotic reactions).
Benzodiazepines (tranquilizers) such as diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax) have unfortunately been associated with a number of problems, including withdrawal symptoms and the risk of overdose, and have not been found to be significantly effective for helping individuals with PTSD.