Therapist

Exposure therapy for acute stress disorder

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Exposure therapy has been found to effectively address the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as symptoms of other anxiety disorders. With this roundup of different forms of exposure therapy, find out which treatment is right for you.

Overview of Exposure Therapy for PTSD

Exposure therapy is considered a behavioral treatment for PTSD. This is because exposure therapy targets learned behaviors that people engage in (most often the avoidance) in response to situations or thoughts and memories that are viewed as frightening or anxiety-provoking. For example, a rape survivor may begin to avoid relationships or going out on dates for fear that she will be attacked again.

It is important to recognize that this learned avoidance serves a purpose. When a person experiences a traumatic event, he may begin to act in ways to avoid threatening situations with the goal of trying to prevent that traumatic experience from happening again.

Avoidance is a safety-seeking or protective response. However, as this avoidance behavior becomes more extreme, a person’s quality of life may lessen.

He may lose touch with family or experience difficulties at work or in relationships.

In addition, avoidance can make PTSD symptoms stick around longer or even intensify. That is because a person is avoiding certain situations, thoughts, or emotions, he doesn’t have the opportunity to learn that these situations may not be quite as threatening as they seem. In addition, by avoiding thoughts, memories, and emotions, a person doesn’t let himself fully process those experiences.

The goal of exposure therapy then is to help reduce a person’s fear and anxiety, with the ultimate goal of eliminating avoidance behavior and increasing quality of life. This is done by actively confronting the things that a person fears. By confronting feared situations, thoughts, and emotions, a person can learn that anxiety and fear will lessen on its own.

So, how does a person actively confront feared situations, thoughts, and emotions during exposure therapy? A number of methods may be used by a therapist. These are described below.

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Methods of Exposure Therapy

In Vivo Exposure

In vivo exposure refers to the direct confrontation of feared objects, activities or situations by a person under the guidance of a therapist. For example, a woman with PTSD who fears the location where she was assaulted may be assisted by her therapist in going to that location and directly confronting those fears (as long as it is safe to do so).

Likewise, a person with social anxiety disorder who fears public speaking may be instructed to directly confront those fears by giving a speech.

Imaginal Exposure

In imaginal exposure, a client is asked to imagine feared images or situations. Imaginal exposure can help a person directly confront feared thoughts and memories.

Imaginal exposure also may be used when it is not possible or safe for a person to directly confront a feared situation.

For example, it would not be safe to have a combat veteran with PTSD to directly confront a combat situation again. Therefore, he may be asked to imagine a feared combat situation that he experienced.

Interoceptive Exposure

Interoceptive exposure was originally designed to treat panic disorder. However, there is evidence that interoceptive exposure may be successful in the treatment of PTSD as well. It is designed to help people directly confront feared bodily symptoms often associated with anxiety, such as an increased heart rate and shortness of breath. The therapist may assist this by having a person (in a controlled and safe manner) hyperventilate for a brief period of time, exercise, breathe through a straw or hold his breath.

Prolonged Exposure

Prolonged exposure therapy is a combination of the above three methods. Prolonged exposure has been found to be very effective for PTSD sufferers. It involves an average of 8 to 15 sessions for about 90 minutes per session.

Prolonged exposure therapy consists of education about trauma and what you will be doing, learning how to control your breathing (interoceptive exposure), practicing in the real world (in vivo exposure), and talking about your trauma (imaginal exposure).

Finding a Therapist for PTSD

Exposure therapy has been found to be a very effective treatment for PTSD. In addition, methods for delivering exposure therapy to people is continuing to advance. In particular, some therapists are beginning to use virtual reality technology to help people confront the things they fear most.

Yet, it is important to recognize that some people are hesitant to go through exposure therapy because it might sound scary to confront fears. Exposure therapy is like any other treatment for PTSD. It requires a tremendous commitment and can be difficult at times. A major part of most treatments for PTSD is confronting and connecting with feared situations, thoughts, and feelings. The way in which this is done in each treatment simply differ.

Therefore, it is very important to find the right therapist and treatment for you. You can find out more information about treatment providers in your area who might offer exposure therapy through the Anxiety Disorder Association of America. 

Diagnosis

To diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder, your doctor will likely:

  • Perform a physical exam to check for medical problems that may be causing your symptoms
  • Do a psychological evaluation that includes a discussion of your signs and symptoms and the event or events that led up to them
  • Use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association

Diagnosis of PTSD requires exposure to an event that involved the actual or possible threat of death, violence or serious injury. Your exposure can happen in one or more of these ways:

  • You directly experienced the traumatic event
  • You witnessed, in person, the traumatic event occurring to others
  • You learned someone close to you experienced or was threatened by the traumatic event
  • You are repeatedly exposed to graphic details of traumatic events (for example, if you are a first responder to the scene of traumatic events)

You may have PTSD if the problems you experience after this exposure continue for more than a month and cause significant problems in your ability to function in social and work settings and negatively impact relationships.

Treatment

Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life. The primary treatment is psychotherapy, but can also include medication. Combining these treatments can help improve your symptoms by:

  • Teaching you skills to address your symptoms
  • Helping you think better about yourself, others and the world
  • Learning ways to cope if any symptoms arise again
  • Treating other problems often related to traumatic experiences, such as depression, anxiety, or misuse of alcohol or drugs

You don’t have to try to handle the burden of PTSD on your own.

Psychotherapy

Several types of psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, may be used to treat children and adults with PTSD. Some types of psychotherapy used in PTSD treatment include:

  • Cognitive therapy. This type of talk therapy helps you recognize the ways of thinking (cognitive patterns) that are keeping you stuck — for example, negative beliefs about yourself and the risk of traumatic things happening again. For PTSD, cognitive therapy often is used along with exposure therapy.
  • Exposure therapy. This behavioral therapy helps you safely face both situations and memories that you find frightening so that you can learn to cope with them effectively. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for flashbacks and nightmares. One approach uses virtual reality programs that allow you to re-enter the setting in which you experienced trauma.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR combines exposure therapy with a series of guided eye movements that help you process traumatic memories and change how you react to them.

Your therapist can help you develop stress management skills to help you better handle stressful situations and cope with stress in your life.

All these approaches can help you gain control of lasting fear after a traumatic event. You and your mental health professional can discuss what type of therapy or combination of therapies may best meet your needs.

You may try individual therapy, group therapy or both. Group therapy can offer a way to connect with others going through similar experiences.

Medications

Several types of medications can help improve symptoms of PTSD:

  • Antidepressants. These medications can help symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can also help improve sleep problems and concentration. The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) medications sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil) are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for PTSD treatment.
  • Anti-anxiety medications. These drugs can relieve severe anxiety and related problems. Some anti-anxiety medications have the potential for abuse, so they are generally used only for a short time.
  • Prazosin. While several studies indicated that prazosin (Minipress) may reduce or suppress nightmares in some people with PTSD, a more recent study showed no benefit over placebo. But participants in the recent study differed from others in ways that potentially could impact the results. Individuals who are considering prazosin should speak with a doctor to determine whether or not their particular situation might merit a trial of this drug.

You and your doctor can work together to figure out the best medication, with the fewest side effects, for your symptoms and situation. You may see an improvement in your mood and other symptoms within a few weeks.

Tell your doctor about any side effects or problems with medications. You may need to try more than one or a combination of medications, or your doctor may need to adjust your dosage or medication schedule before finding the right fit for you.

Coping and support

If stress and other problems caused by a traumatic event affect your life, see your doctor or mental health professional. You can also take these actions as you continue with treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder:

  • Follow your treatment plan. Although it may take a while to feel benefits from therapy or medications, treatment can be effective, and most people do recover. Remind yourself that it takes time. Following your treatment plan and routinely communicating with your mental health professional will help move you forward.
  • Learn about PTSD. This knowledge can help you understand what you’re feeling, and then you can develop coping strategies to help you respond effectively.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, exercise and take time to relax. Try to reduce or avoid caffeine and nicotine, which can worsen anxiety.
  • Don’t self-medicate. Turning to alcohol or drugs to numb your feelings isn’t healthy, even though it may be a tempting way to cope. It can lead to more problems down the road, interfere with effective treatments and prevent real healing.
  • Break the cycle. When you feel anxious, take a brisk walk or jump into a hobby to re-focus.
  • Stay connected. Spend time with supportive and caring people — family, friends, faith leaders or others. You don’t have to talk about what happened if you don’t want to. Just sharing time with loved ones can offer healing and comfort.
  • Consider a support group. Ask your mental health professional for help finding a support group, or contact veterans’ organizations or your community’s social services system. Or look for local support groups in an online directory.

When someone you love has PTSD

The person you love may seem like a different person than you knew before the trauma — angry and irritable, for example, or withdrawn and depressed. PTSD can significantly strain the emotional and mental health of loved ones and friends.

Hearing about the trauma that led to your loved one’s PTSD may be painful for you and even cause you to relive difficult events. You may find yourself avoiding his or her attempts to talk about the trauma or feeling hopeless that your loved one will get better. At the same time, you may feel guilty that you can’t fix your loved one or hurry up the process of healing.

Remember that you can’t change someone. However, you can:

  • Learn about PTSD. This can help you understand what your loved one is going through.
  • Recognize that avoidance and withdrawal are part of the disorder. If your loved one resists your help, allow space and let your loved one know that you’re available when he or she is ready to accept your help.
  • Offer to attend medical appointments. If your loved one is willing, attending appointments can help you understand and assist with treatment.
  • Be willing to listen. Let your loved one know you’re willing to listen, but you understand if he or she doesn’t want to talk. Try not to force your loved one to talk about the trauma until he or she is ready.
  • Encourage participation. Plan opportunities for activities with family and friends. Celebrate good events.
  • Make your own health a priority. Take care of yourself by eating healthy, being physically active and getting enough rest. Take time alone or with friends, doing activities that help you recharge.
  • Seek help if you need it. If you have difficulty coping, talk with your doctor. He or she may refer you to a therapist who can help you work through your stress.
  • Stay safe. Plan a safe place for yourself and your children if your loved one becomes violent or abusive.

Preparing for your appointment

If you think you may have post-traumatic stress disorder, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health professional. Here’s some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and what to expect.

Take a trusted family member or friend along, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember all the information provided to you.

What you can do

Before your appointment, make a list of:

  • Any symptoms you’ve been experiencing, and for how long.
  • Key personal information, especially events or experiences — even in your distant past — that have made you feel intense fear, helplessness or horror. It will help your doctor to know if there are memories you can’t directly access without feeling an overwhelming need to push them out of your mind.
  • Things you have stopped doing or are avoiding because of your stress.
  • Your medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions with which you’ve been diagnosed. Also include any medications or supplements you’re taking, and the dosages.
  • Questions to ask so that you can make the most of your appointment.

Some basic questions to ask your doctor or mental health professional may include:

  • What do you believe is causing my symptoms?
  • Are there any other possible causes?
  • How will you determine my diagnosis?
  • Is my condition likely temporary or long term?
  • What treatments do you recommend for this disorder?
  • I have other health problems. How best can I manage these together with PTSD?
  • How soon do you expect my symptoms to improve?
  • Does PTSD increase my risk of other mental health problems?
  • Do you recommend any changes at home, work or school to encourage recovery?
  • Would it help my recovery to tell my teachers or co-workers about my diagnosis?
  • Are there any printed materials on PTSD that I can have? What websites do you recommend?

Don’t hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Be ready to answer them to reserve time to go over any points you want to focus on. Your doctor may ask:

  • What symptoms are concerning to you or your loved ones?
  • When did you or your loved ones first notice your symptoms?
  • Have you ever experienced or witnessed a traumatic event?
  • Do you have disturbing thoughts, memories or nightmares of the trauma you experienced?
  • Do you avoid certain people, places or situations that remind you of the traumatic experience?
  • Have you been having any problems at school, work or in your personal relationships?
  • Have you ever thought about harming yourself or others?
  • Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs? How often?
  • Have you been treated for other psychiatric symptoms or mental illness in the past? If yes, what type of therapy was most helpful?
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