Unfortunately, most people will experience a significant traumatic stressor in their lifetime. Traumatic stressors might include, but are not limited to, experiences such as car accidents, sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, childhood neglect or invalidation, facing the loss of a child due to cancer or other medical conditions, and witnessing the death or injury of others through combat or first responding. Most people experience symptoms immediately following these experiences, such as nightmares, intrusive and distressing images or memories, sleep difficulties, and negative thoughts about self or others. While some people recover naturally with time without formal intervention, some people find that they continue to have symptoms. Often these symptoms rise to the level of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but there are many other conditions that can arise following traumatic experiences. Symptoms of PTSD include re-experiencing (e.g., nightmares, intrusive memories), avoidance of trauma-related reminders and/or conversations, negative changes in thought patterns and mood (e.g., detachment or disconnection, thinking thoughts like, “It’s completely my fault;” “The world is a dangerous place,” “No one can be trusted”), and changes in reactivity (e.g., irritability, impaired sleep and concentration).
PE is considered an evidence-based therapy for PTSD. Over the past two decades, numerous well-controlled research studies have shown that PE significantly reduces symptoms of PTSD and other symptoms of depression, anger and anxiety. PE helps you gradually approach trauma-related thoughts, feelings, and situations, that have been understandably been avoided due to the distress they cause. Through this repeated exposure, you can process your trauma in new ways, and reduce its power over your life. In other words, you can reduce its emotional impact and feel more in control of it, instead of feeling like the trauma guides or controls you. Many people hold the misconception that PE is “re-traumatizing” or forces survivors to “relive” distressing experiences. On the contrary, PE does not expose you to feelings, memories, and thoughts that do not already live inside of you. Rather, it helps draw them out in a compassionate, safe, and contained way in order to promote processing and reduce the impact of the trauma on your day-to-day life. Survivors are always offered choices, and are empowered and encouraged, but never forced.
Treatment involves establishing treatment goals, learning about trauma-related symptoms and their impact, understanding the rationale for different aspects of the treatment, breathing retraining, sharing details of your trauma, and real-life practice gradually approaching distressing situations. PE generally consists of eight to fifteen weekly or twice weekly sessions. Most sessions last about 75-90-minutes each. Partners or loved ones may be integrated into treatment for support as needed. More information on PE, including a whiteboard video and how to help loved ones participating in this treatment, can be found here. If you struggle with interpersonal or emotion regulation difficulties related to your trauma or otherwise, the combined Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Prolonged Exposure approach may be a good fit.
While PE is extremely effective for trauma-related symptoms, it is not a good fit for everyone. Fortunately, there are a number of other treatments that are effective for trauma-related issues, depending on your preferences and stage of recovery – Cognitive Processing Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Skills Training in Affective and Interpersonal Regulation, Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Cognitive-Behavioral Conjoint Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and Mindfulness-Based Therapy.
If you aren’t sure which of these treatments might be the best fit for you, please feel free to contact us to talk more. We’re happy to help and want to ensure you’re getting the treatment that most suits your needs.