Posted on May 1, 2019
Last modified on July 11, 2019
The American Psychiatric Association and the Department of Veterans Affairs and Defense back the benefits of prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD. Research shows PE can be an effective therapy for treatment-resistant trauma and complex trauma.
A traumatic event or events often leads to a number of troublesome symptoms. You may struggle with intrusive thoughts about the event. You may have anxiety and depression. You may feel unsafe in certain situations and uncomfortable in your own skin. PTSD can also come with nightmares and feelings of hopelessness and anger. It’s understandable that you’d want to avoid things that trigger these PTSD symptoms.
The problem is that avoiding events and feelings tied to trauma can make symptoms worse. It can also lead to substance abuse, eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to numb difficult emotions.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD helps you deal with fears and feelings around trauma so you can lessen their hold on your life. When you’re traumatized, your brain may associate certain sights, smells, sounds and situations with the trauma. When you come across these things in everyday life, the brain thinks you’re in danger, even if you’re not. This can trigger PTSD symptoms.
Prolonged exposure therapy helps your brain develop healthier associations with trauma triggers. Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD may involve:
You’ll discuss the traumatic event with your therapist. They’ll usually ask you to also write about the experience or record it. You’ll read your account out loud (or listen to the recording) during therapy and at home. You’ll continue to do this exercise over several sessions. Your therapist will help you work through the physical sensations and emotions that come up when you talk about the trauma.
These PE sessions help you address your trauma symptoms in real-world situations. You’ll start to gradually expose yourself to situations you’ve been avoiding because of trauma. The therapist carefully guides you through this process in a way that won’t retraumatize you. You’ll experience difficult feelings and have strong reactions. You’ll also have tools that help you manage those stressors better. You’ll gradually work your way up to more intimidating situations. Your tolerance for distress will grow and triggering situations will also feel less intense.
Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD usually takes place over three months. The goal is to help you feel safe and secure in everyday life. Prolonged exposure therapy can help reset your fight, flight or freeze response. You’ll feel less activated by situations that remind you of past trauma. You’ll feel fear and anxiety when the danger is real.
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