Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological syndrome characterized by fear, anxiety, or avoidance of anything that serves as a reminder of a previous traumatic event. Typically, symptoms manifest as recurring nightmares, flashbacks, or an extreme reaction to what is perceived as a precursor to another incidence of the event, such as a loud bang or sudden movement. PTSD is commonly experienced by veterans returning from war, often out of guilt for having survived or from being plagued with self-blame for the circumstances that led to demise of others. However, this disorder also affects people who have experienced other types of trauma, such as sexual assault, a car accident, a natural disaster, an act of terrorism, etc. Since symptoms can progress to the point of becoming debilitating, PTSD therapy is often necessary in order to learn how to cohesively integrate personal tragedy with everyday life going forward.
One of the most commonly employed forms of PTSD therapy is cognitive therapy. Also known as cognitive-behavioral therapy, this treatment is focused on identifying thought patterns that trigger anger or fear with the goal of reframing them to reflect more appropriate thoughts and emotional responses. The behavior modification aspect of this type of therapy involves a process of reconditioning existing behaviors by building on coping skills.
Exposure therapy has the same goal as cognitive therapy, but by different means. In fact, it is really more of a talk-it-out form of PTSD therapy. The premise is that by talking about the traumatic experience individually with a therapist or in a group therapy setting, the patient can eventually become desensitized to distorted bits and pieces stored in memory incrementally rather than attempting to grapple with the impression of the entire event sequence. However, in contrast to this method, the therapist may engage certain patients in “flooding,” which means the deliberate exposure to numerous memories associated with the traumatic event at once in order to encourage dealing with feelings of being overwhelmed.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a fairly new form of PTSD therapy. As with exposure and cognitive therapy, EMDR therapy is focused on desensitization of memories and reframing, or reprocessing, thought patterns and behavioral responses. However, the key difference is that distractions are introduced while the patient is engaged in recall about the traumatic experience. This is achieved with left-to-right eye movements from following an object close to the face, or with alternating hand taps or other sounds. The exact mechanism behind this innovative therapy is unclear at this point, but the bilateral disturbances are thought to interrupt and diffuse fragmented memories of the traumatic event, leaving the brain free to accept a more organized—and less fearful--interpretation of the event.