Using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for PTSD

Nearly 10 percent of Americans experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, within a given year. This trauma is often related to violence, natural disasters, accidents, violence, or combat. As a result, patients have vivid recurring memories, thoughts, and emotions that disrupt their daily lives. These traumatic experiences can be triggered through sensory intake or in something as simple as being caught off guard for an embrace. For many, PTSD is intertwined with depression, resulting in detachment from everyday life. For others, PTSD manifests in severe panic attacks as a result of sensory triggers. When experiencing these life-disrupting symptoms, patients often turn to therapy, specifically cognitive behavioral therapy.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a psychiatric condition in which a person’s past experiences repeatedly causes periods of intense anxiety. Patients commonly experience PTSD as the result of military combat, natural disasters, critical accidents, or violent assaults/incidents. Every patient is unique in both their triggers and responses, as well as the duration and severity of each.

Not all patients displaying PTSD have experienced a trauma first-hand. For some, PTSD can come as the result of repeated exposure to trauma. For example, PTSD can result from repeatedly following local news coverage of a natural disaster or in military personnel who spend their time researching and data-logging previous combat reports.

What Does PTSD look like?

PTSD typically presents in one of four ways:

Cognitive disruption: These particular patients experience repeated involuntary flashbacks of their trauma. Often, these moments of reliving trauma are at such a high level of cognition that patient gets lost in the memory as if they were truly going through it once again.  

Guilt: Many patients, most commonly those with combat-based PTSD, experience a high level of guilt as a result of their trauma. Many have distorted senses of self, “survivor’s guilt,” or feelings of disconnect from their normal lives.

 Irritability: Containing emotions of trauma can often lead to outbursts and constant agitation. Destructive behaviors as well as violent behaviors are often experienced in this form of PTSD.

Avoidance: Patients manifesting their PTSD through avoidance keep themselves from any particular person, place, or action that could trigger their past experiences. This degree of avoidance, however, is often to the level of isolation, and can lead to depression and other serious health issues.

What is CBT?

CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is a method of treatment that evaluates the connection between a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Therapists practicing CBT will evaluate each patient’s triggers and their subsequent behaviors before deciding upon the best approach for treatment. Given the connection between trauma and cognitive functioning, this particular method of treatment is commonly used for PTSD patients.

CBT is broken down into two parts; exposure and response prevention, and cognitive therapy. Each of these methods has proven successful for PTSD patients based on the specific triggers affecting their day-to-day lives.

How Can CBT Help PTSD?

Patients attending CBT therapy under exposure and response prevention are encouraged to confront their triggers. This can be repeatedly reenacting trauma or simply recounting the experience out loud. Under the guidance of the therapist, patients learn to address their trauma as opposed to avoiding it, and after repeated exposure can lessen the power it has over their psyche. Once these have been established and the patient has been safely exposed to them, therapists will guide the patient to formulate a healthy response moving forward.

On the other hand, a patient attending CBT on the cognitive end is encouraged to address their triggers and work through them until they’ve lessened their fear of them. The idea of this version of talk therapy is to pinpoint exact triggers, find ways to confront them, and reduce the impact they have on a patient moving forward. 

Whichever method is chosen for diagnosis and treatment, patients with PTSD often find great success in attending cognitive behavioral therapy in order to restore their overall sense of wellbeing.

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