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At the moment of exposure to extremely stressful situations, our brains change. The new trauma-related memories can loop in the brain, gain strength, be reinforced and change our behavior.
This is a nutshell view of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It begs the question: If we can disrupt the rehearsal and strengthening of traumatic memories, might we be able to reduce PTSD?
A new study by Dr. Barbara Rothbaum reports that behavioral intervention delivered to patients immediately after trauma is effective at reducing PTSD. “PTSD is a major public health concern,” said Rothbaum, professor in Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
"In so many people what happens immediately after a traumatic event can make things worse or better. Right now, there are no accepted interventions delivered in the immediate aftermath of trauma."
The study was conducted using volunteers from an emergency room who had suffered a traumatic event such as rape, a car accident, or a physical assault. Behavioral intervention was started immediately for half of the victims, while the other half did not participate. They were then monitored for 12 weeks.
The intervention included a modified form of exposure therapy in which a survivor confronts anxiety about a traumatic event by retelling it. The goal is to alter the person’s thoughts and feelings about what happened.
Trained therapists ask patients to describe the trauma and record the description. The patients are instructed to listen to their recordings every day. They are also taught a breathing technique to relax as well as strategies for self-care.
The therapists found the intervention, called trauma reconsolidation, to be safe, feasible and successful at reducing PTSD.
“If we know what to do then we can train emergency workers to intervene with patients on a large scale. In addition to being implemented in the emergency room, it can help on the battlefield, in natural disaster, or after criminal assaults,” stated Rothbaum.
“More research is needed, but this prevention model could have significant public health implications. A long-standing hope of mental health research is to prevent the development of psychopathology in those at risk instead of being limited to symptom treatment after the disease onset.”
Sources: MedicalNewsToday, Biological Psychiatry
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