What are the PTSD pros and cons of exposure therapy?

Forcing a traumatized individual to relive memories associated with a traumatic event can do more harm than good.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a recognized mental illness that can affect individuals from any region or lifestyle. Several therapeutic interventions have attempted to treat this problem, including exposure therapy. This approach is a scientifically validated, relatively simple, and often invaluable process for helping individuals overcome overwhelming fears. The lack of counseling analysis is a valid concern regarding PTSD exposure therapy, however. The use of memory recovery techniques that can cause a setback also represents a potential blow.

Exposure therapy can be used to treat phobias.

Psychiatric organizations have detailed the main signs of PTSD. Symptoms manifest after a traumatic event or series of traumatic events. Common roots of PTSD include wartime combat, witnessing a violent crime, and physical or sexual assault. These experiences foster an emotional state in which intense flashbacks to the event occur, causing heightened emotional responses. The individual is also more highly sensitized to normal stimuli.

Exposure therapy can emotionally incapacitate PTSD patients.

Fear is an emotion that drives individuals with PTSD, and these fears can lead to avoidance of certain situations. Avoidance can range from refusing to visit the place where the event took place to withdrawing the individual from professional or social activities. PTSD exposure therapy can directly confront the issue of avoidance.

Confrontation is indeed the basic principle behind exposure therapy. This intervention is a behavioral approach that aims to change the individual’s behavior and, ultimately, their thoughts about the behavior. In the case of PTSD, a therapist may accompany a crime witness to the crime scene, for example. If an individual has avoided romantic relationships because of a sexual assault, on the other hand, the therapist may encourage casual dating. Thus, one of the main benefits of PTSD exposure therapy is its usefulness in helping individuals overcome their fears: fears that fuel PTSD’s emotional control.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition resulting from physical or emotional trauma.

PTSD exposure therapy is a streamlined and effective approach, according to advocates. Facing a fear is a simple task physically, though not necessarily emotionally. Behavioral therapies such as exposure therapy, therefore, tend to be less time and resource intensive than more involved conversation-based analytical approaches. Scientific evidence suggests that therapies also produce valid results. Exposure therapy has been used as a successful treatment for phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and a wide range of other illnesses in addition to PTSD.

People with PTSD often have memory problems.

The apparent simplicity of the process, however, may be one of its main disadvantages. Individuals who have experienced trauma often have a variety of complex thoughts and emotions. Talking about these issues can be a necessary cathartic outlet that is largely absent from many forms of PTSD exposure therapy. This problem can be alleviated with combined cognitive-behavioral approaches, which seek to fuse the behavioral aspect of therapy with techniques that allow the individual to assess and re-evaluate negative thoughts and feelings.

Imaginal exposure is another potentially adverse aspect of exposure therapy for PTSD. This involves reliving and replaying feared thoughts and memories in an individual’s mind. Some critics may argue that this component of exposure therapy too closely resembles the actual flashbacks that emotionally incapacitate many PTSD patients. Forcing a traumatized soldier to relive scenes of death and mutilation, for example, can do more harm than good.

A therapist trained specifically in exposure therapy can counteract some of these negative effects. Flooding techniques that expose the patient to a feared stimulus for long, uninterrupted periods of time can be replaced by a systematic desensitization approach that gradually works the patient up to intense exposure. Additionally, a trained therapist can guide the patient in pre-session relaxation techniques that can help ease the mood.

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