The Effects of Trauma Do Not Have to Last a Lifetime

The Effects of Trauma Do Not Have to Last a Lifetime

Most people will experience a trauma at some point in their lives, and as a result, some will experience debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily life. The good news is that psychological interventions are effective in preventing many long-term effects.

Findings

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. Traumatic events that may trigger PTSD include violent personal assaults, natural or human-caused disasters, such as terrorist attacks, motor vehicle accidents, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and other crimes, or military combat.

Those suffering from PTSD can have trouble functioning in their jobs or personal relationships. Children can be traumatized and have difficulty in school, become isolated from others and develop phobias. Many people with PTSD repeatedly re-experience the ordeal in the form of flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts, especially when they are exposed to events or objects that remind them of the trauma. PTSD is diagnosed when symptoms last more than one month.

Psychologist Roxane Silver has studied the effects of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. Her research focused on the immediate and long-term responses to the attacks and found that the severity of exposure to the event, rather than the degree of loss, predicted the level of distress among people. For example, people who reported seeing the planes smash into the trade center buildings experienced more PTSD symptoms than average, but people who experienced financial losses because of the attacks did not. Other studies have shown that simply watching traumatic events on TV can be traumatic to some, especially those individuals who had pre-existing mental or physical health difficulties or had a greater exposure to the attacks.

The good news is, research has shown that psychological interventions can help prevent these long-term, chronic psychological consequences.

In general, cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) (which strive to help traumatized individuals understand and manage the anxiety and fear they are experiencing) have proven very effective in producing significant reductions in PTSD symptoms (generally 60-80%) in several civilian populations, especially rape survivors. Even combat veterans who have experienced PTSD after chronic, repeated exposure to horrific events experience moderate benefits from CBT (though, not surprisingly, this kind of repeated trauma is harder to treat).

Research also suggests that brief, specialized interventions may effectively prevent PTSD in some subgroups of trauma patients. Psychologist E. B. Foa and colleagues have developed brief cognitive-behavioral treatments (lasting four to five sessions) that include, (1) education, (2) various forms of relaxation therapy, (3)¬†in vivo¬†exposure (repeated confrontations with the actual traumatic stressor and with situations that evoke trauma-related fears), and (4) cognitive restructuring (techniques for replacing catastrophic, self-defeating thought patterns with more adaptive, self-reassuring statements). If used within a few weeks of exposure to traumas, this brief form of therapy often prevents PTSD in survivors of both sexual and nonsexual assaults. R. A. Bryant’s research found that cognitive-behavioral treatment is also effective in preventing the occurrence of PTSD in survivors of motor vehicle and industrial accidents. In addition to targeted, brief interventions, some trauma survivors may benefit from ongoing counseling or treatment, according to Bryant, and candidates for such treatment include survivors with a history of previous traumatization (e.g., survivors of the current trauma who have a history of childhood physical or sexual abuse) or those who have preexisting mental health problems.