Treatment for PTSD
Mental health professionals usually recommend a combination of treatment therapies once a diagnosis is made. Treatment is aimed at alleviating the debilitating and severe nature of physical and emotional symptoms. By doing so, treatment helps to improve a person’s ability to function normally, while working through the traumatic ordeal and learning to better cope.
If achieved, a person with PTSD can gain better control over their own lives and move on in a more productive way. Where relevant, treatment will also incorporate measures that help control co-occurring problems and complications, such as substance abuse and reckless behaviours.
1. ‘Talk therapy’ (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy)
The objective of ‘talk therapy’ is to encourage a person with PTSD to remember the event (through exposure therapy which confronts a person with things or situations that bring up memories, and associated symptoms of the event), which caused the trauma by expressing emotions and feelings.
The point is not to create more emotional turmoil but to help desensitise a person in a controlled and safe setting that helps to gradually alleviate debilitating symptoms. When exposed to specific things or situations (through re-imagining, writing or direct contact – visiting a place where the trauma occurred) that result in symptomatic reactions, such as anxiety, a person with PTSD is encouraged to confront their emotions and fears.
A therapist will guide the process carefully so that a person learns the means to cope whenever they may next find themselves in situations which cause distress and anxiety. A therapist will also help a person to better understand the events which caused anxiety in a more realistic way. Sometimes recollection of events is distorted by exaggerated emotions and cannot be understood in a rational or realistic way.
‘Talk therapy’ is done by helping a person to both recognise and change their thought patterns which lead to debilitating emotions and sometimes, behaviours too. Therapy provides a person with the means to learn how to better manage symptoms, enabling them to cope a little better. Therapy also addresses key areas of PTSD as a disorder and helps a person (and their loved ones) better understand the condition.
2. Other psychotherapy methods
A doctor may also recommend one of the following:
- Psychodynamic therapy: which works to assess a person’s personal value and the emotional challenges following the traumatic event.
- Family therapy: Another method involves close relatives and loved one. Family therapy may also be recommended where it is found that those closest to a person with PTSD have also been adversely affected. This can help loved ones to better understand what a person with PTSD is experiencing and how not only to handle their behaviour, but work through their own emotions too.
- EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) may be recommended as part of therapy sessions as a way of treating distressing memories which result in phobias. This works by combining exposure therapy and a series of guided eye movements in a safe set up, using sounds or hand movements. The purpose is to help a person with PTSD to ‘re-live’ specific things about the traumatic event that was experienced while learning how to recognise ways they can actively change how they react in anxiety causing situations.
- Prolonged exposure: A similar method to EDMR is prolonged exposure (these are sessions where a person repeatedly talks through their trauma until symptoms are no longer as distressing).
Psychotherapy helps a person better understand the experienced trauma and how it has directly affected them, teaches the use of ‘control skills’ to gain a handle on anger and better relax, equips a person with advice and tips to better help take care of themselves (sleeping, eating and exercising), addresses feelings of guilt or shame, and provides a means to help a person counteract negative reactions to their symptoms with others that better control anxiety triggers.
A doctor may prescribe medications as part of the treatment process to help alleviate the frequency of symptoms a person will find most debilitating emotionally. Medications can include anti-depressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors / SSRIs) and anti-anxiety drugs (some are prescribed over a short period due to the risk of dependency), as well as mood stabilisers or neuroleptics (antipsychotics / major tranquilisers). Sometimes a sleeping aid may be recommended as well.
Medications do carry side-effects, so it is advisable to discuss these with the prescribing doctor before filling prescriptions. Most medications will show improvement in symptoms and mood within a few weeks. Depending on the nature of side-effects, dosages can be adjusted or medications changed during the initial stages to provide more comfortable use.
4. Support groups
A group session is often recommended to help a person with talking through their emotions. Groups sessions consist of others with PTSD who can all share similar symptoms together in a safe space. This can help a person to realise that they are not alone in what they are going through, and can provide some level of support which may not be available elsewhere (i.e. a ‘talk therapy’ session or among loved ones at home).
Treatment is best guided by a mental health professional who is experienced in PTSD cases. Treatment combinations that work for one individual may not be as effective for another. An experienced doctor will be able to assess the needs of a person with PTSD, based on their personal trauma (and whether there are any other ongoing issues such as substance abuse, suicidal tendencies, abusive relationships or depression), and advise the most effective ways to get a handle on the disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a treatable condition and a person can recover within a matter of months.
Is colour therapy (or art therapy) effective for post-traumatic stress disorder?
Adult colouring has become somewhat of a trend in recent years, and not just for amusement. Colouring can have healing effects too. For people learning to cope through trauma, colouring has been found to help engage a different part of the brain which allows a person to process their emotions associated with traumatic experiences in a more beneficial way.
Colour or art therapy done with a trained mental health professional can form part of a beneficial treatment programme. Traumatic memories are effectively emotional physiological, sensory and visual reminders of those experienced at the time of a traumatic ordeal. They remain in the mind and physical body of a person suffering from PTSD.
Treatment helps a person to work through every aspect and detail of these memories until such time as they no longer cause a person distress. This then enables a person to better handle the kinds of memories or reminders going forward in a way that does not render them incapable of functioning normally again. Memories may not ever be forgotten, with or without an emotional response, but they can be better understood and managed through tools provided in therapy.
In the process of learning these tools, re-living the ordeal is not an easy thing to do and not everyone is able to talk through their emotions effectively. For some, colouring, drawing, painting, or using other art form mediums such as sculpture, provide a way to process trauma in a beneficial way.
Where art is noted as effective, a doctor may incorporate art or colour therapy into treatment sessions, virtually every step of the way. Art therapy can help to address a person’s entire experience, and specifically trauma which affects a person a very visual way.
Where words fail a person with PTSD, they may be able to better express themselves during a therapy session by drawing, instead of describing an emotion, for instance. Sometimes, creating a collage that represents part of the experience can help a person to better understand themselves. Art which is used to ‘tell the story of trauma’ provides a person with a healing alternative for expression.
Incorporation of art, even at a very basic level, can help a person with PTSD to tap into other areas of their ordeal, that may be more difficult to access through talking.
How art or colour therapy can help
- Reclaims a sense of physical safety: A person with PTSD often feels a sense of disconnection from their bodies (dissociation) as a result of an intense physical reaction to feeling threatened. This reactive effect means that a person can have difficulty feeling connected to their physical self. A person with PTSD struggles to feel safe within their own body. Re-establishing a sense of safety is a critical part of recovery for a person with PTSD. Therapy addresses ways a person can regain physical self-awareness and the way their physical bodies can engage with the world (and sensations) around them again. Art can help by externalising particularly difficult portions of their traumatic experience (while still confronting elements of the trauma) and enable the person to regain a sense of safety in a physical sense. Art thus helps to bridge feelings with a physical sense of reality (helping the person feel safe ‘in their own skin’).
If a person feels that art therapy may benefit them in their recovery, it is best to raise this with the treating doctor. He or she may have or know of an art expert (a therapist with certified psychotherapy and art therapy qualifications) who has training in supporting trauma survivors that can be integrated into a treatment plan. For some talking through trauma is the centrepiece of treatment. For others, it may be more visual forms of creative expression which best taps into healing methods.
It is advisable to use art therapy under the guidance of a trained mental health professional. As much as talking can trigger distressing memories, so too can visual or sensory materials. A therapist will always ensure that sessions are conducted in a manner that provides a sense of safety for a person with PTSD. When used in sessions, either method can also be better controlled if a person experiences any distress.
Is pet therapy (or animal-assisted therapy) effective for PTSD sufferers?
Studies have shown that pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy can have highly positive effects on depressive symptoms. The practice of pet therapy has gained popularity in recent years, using dogs and other domesticated animals to provide positive benefits for those undergoing treatment for certain health conditions. Those with heart disease, cancer and various mental health disorders are some where pet therapy has shown some benefit.
Pet therapy involves animal-assisted therapy techniques and / or animal-assisted activities. Activities are used for comforting and enjoyment purposes, and are most common around nursing homes.
Therapy involves a short visit (sometimes 10 to 15 minutes at a time) with an assistance animal, such as a dog and their handler. Some animals can also help to reinforce rehabilitative behaviours through walking or throwing a ball.
These types of visits have shown to significantly contribute to the alleviation of anxiety, depression, fatigue and sometimes pain. Many war veterans dealing with PTSD, and their families (sitting in on a visit), have found pet therapy to be a beneficial part of their healing process. A short visit can help to significantly reduce levels of stress and anxiety, which can be highly beneficial for a person suffering symptoms of PTSD.