PTSD Treatments That Could Work for You
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PTSD Treatments That Could Work for You

Get help dealing with flashbacks, upsetting memories and complicated emotions related to trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after any event—a car accident, a battle, a heart attack—that’s considered traumatizing, either to the person directly experiencing the trauma or to others who have witnessed or been affected by that trauma. For example, soldiers in a combat unit don’t need to be in a firefight to have PTSD from an incident—they can develop the condition as a result of losing their comrades-in-arms, according to Steven Levine, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Princeton, New Jersey.

It’s also possible to develop PTSD months or even more than a year after a traumatic event, he adds. The condition is diagnosed by examining symptoms that last longer than one month and cause disruption to the person experiencing them. These symptoms can include:

  • Flashbacks or upsetting memories of the event
  • Avoiding anything that reminds you of the trauma, including people and places—or even talking about it
  • Feeling consistently sad, disconnected, irritable or without hope
  • Being "on guard" all the time

Those with PTSD tend to feel in danger, Dr. Levine says, as if the trauma is still occurring. When that happens, the elevated “fight or flight” response can cause psychological and physical damage.

“Particularly difficult is that people with PTSD tend to avoid being social, and actively push people away,” says Levine. “At the same time, having a good support network is one of the best ways to start working past the trauma.”

In addition to building a more robust social safety net, there are also treatments that have been shown to help those with PTSD.

Talk therapy
Sitting down with a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist or other health professional trained in PTSD issues is considered the mainstay of treatment, Levine says. Although medications may be recommended based on an individual’s needs, the first-line treatment is often talking through the traumatic events and detailing their emotional, mental and physical effects.

A common form of this approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which creates a structured approach that focuses on behavioral changes, such as putting strategies in place to cope with grief, managing symptoms as they occur and implementing de-stress tactics.

Prolonged exposure therapy
Reliving a traumatic experience on a continual basis can feel overwhelming—and many with PTSD want to avoid those memories completely. But prolonged exposure therapy attempts to create a safe space to allow that to happen in a way that’s constructive, Levine says. A session could involve a person with PTSD re-telling the experience several times, trying to add more detail with each fresh version, or writing about the experience repeatedly through a guided writing prompt.

“Usually, talking about the trauma in a non-safe space can be very triggering and make symptoms worse,” says Levine. “The goal of exposure therapy is to allow the person to share that trauma and those memories in a way that makes the experience eventually feel more emotionally neutral.”

Anti-anxiety medication
Because PTSD is considered an anxiety disorder, medications used for depression and anxiety may be suggested, but usually as an addition to talk therapy rather than a replacement for it, says Levine. A mental health professional uses medication as a tool in the treatment of PTSD, not as a cure.

In general, treatment can take time, especially when the trauma has been life-threatening, he adds. But making a commitment toward treatment can be helpful for learning how to handle symptoms and navigate through PTSD.

To find the right therapist for you, ask your primary care physician for a referral or get in touch with professional organizations like the American Psychological Association, who can help direct you to someone in your area. Military veterans and active servicemen and women can reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs or visit them online for information, like this PTSD resources page.