Treatment for PTSD

A combination of psychotherapy and medication is commonly used to treat PTSD. Despite the fact that many methods of psychotherapy and types of medication have been used to treat PTSD, little evidence about their effectiveness has been produced.

Psychotherapy to Treat PTSD

Psychotherapeutic treatments include the following:

  • Debriefing (i.e., crisis intervention)
  • Psychotherapy
  • Community agencies
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Debriefing sessions are usually conducted as soon after the event as possible. The session usually lasts about 2 hours. A debriefing session typically involves a discussion of the event, the person's reaction to it, and coping strategies. Debriefing sessions are commonly used to help rescue personnel, classmates of students who die in auto accidents or as a result of a violent attack (e.g., victims of random shootings), and survivors of terrorist attacks (e.g., bombings of public buildings).

Psychotherapy is generally necessary in the treatment of PTSD, whether it is conducted in individual therapy or in "survivor group" therapy. Survivor groups may be associated with or may refer group members to local community agencies that offer therapy and support for victims of rape, domestic violence, combat, natural disasters, and so on.

The goal of psychotherapy in the treatment of PTSD is to help the person address and manage painful memories until they no longer cause disabling symptoms. This begins after establishing a safe relationship between the client and therapist. The process involves gradually working through the traumatic event and the patient's reactions to it, validating the patient's experiences, repairing damage done to their identity, and dealing with loss.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a specialized form of psychotherapy that is used primarily for treating PTSD and its associated conditions, including depression. EMDR typically is integrated into a conventional psychotherapy regimen and is not used alone to treat PTSD.

The theory behind EMDR is that stimulated rapid eye movement may help in the psychological processing of trauma. It is thought that the day's events and our reactions to them are processed during REM sleep. In a controlled EMDR session, a stimulus such as moving light is used to induce rapid eye movement.

The EMDR Institute reports that there are more controlled studies of EMDR and its effects than of any other trauma treatment. Varying degrees of improvement have been achieved—some, but not all, studies document improvement after relatively few interventions.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Jan 2001

Last Modified: 01 Oct 2015