How Talk Therapy Helps PTSD

Medical doctor evaluates veteran during appointment
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With increasing numbers of veterans affected by the horrors of war and the sad reality of the traumas of everyday life, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common problem. While the prevalence of PTSD can vary, it has been estimated that approximately 7.8% of people at any given point in their lifetimes experience PTSD. Psychotherapy, also known as "talk therapy," is a popular form of treatment for this disorder. Evidence from one study demonstrates that talk therapy may actually produce biological changes in patients with PTSD.

What Is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following one's exposure to a life-threatening stressor or trauma. Common examples of such stressors include war, rape, and severe accidents. Not everyone who is exposed to trauma develops PTSD. People who are affected by PTSD often experience nightmares, flashbacks of the traumatic event, difficulty sleeping, and a general sense of numbness and hypervigilance, among other symptoms. 

One study on talk therapy and PTSD

A December 2013 paper published in Biological Psychiatry discusses research which examined the effects of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) on patients with PTSD. Researchers out of the National Institute of Psychiatry and Addiction and the University of Szeged in Hungary studied a group of 39 patients who met the criteria for PTSD and compared them with 31 individuals who had been exposed to trauma but did not have PTSD. The patients with PTSD received 12 weeks of CBT, while the comparison group without PTSD received no therapy.

The researchers measured the volumes of certain brain regions using magnetic resonance imaging and took blood samples to measure changes in the expression of a gene, FKBP5, which has been found to be related to the development of PTSD and is implied in the regulation of stress hormones. These measurements were taken from all participants before and after the 12-week period.

Results of the study

Consistent with previous research, at the start of the study the patients with PTSD were found to have lower FKBP5 gene expression and smaller regions of the brain that are involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory, such as the hippocampus, compared to the control group. After the 12-weeks of CBT, however, patients' FKBP5 gene expression was higher and hippocampal volume had increased.

The extent to which their FKBP5 gene expression was higher and hippocampal volume had increased was predictive of their improvement in the reduction of their PTSD symptoms in general.

Implications of the Study

The implications of this study demonstrate the power of psychological interventions such as psychotherapy and specifically, CBT, for the debilitating disorder of PTSD. Psychotherapy not only helps people feel better, but this evidence suggests that it may modulate critical underlying biological processes in those who suffer from PTSD. This research contributes to a growing body of literature demonstrating more and more about the existence of neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change with experience. These results demonstrate that the damages to the brain associated with PTSD may actually be reversible.

This research offers a great deal of hope and future directions in the study and treatment of PTSD.

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  • Kessler, R.C., Sonnega, A., Bromet, E., Hughes, M., & Nelson, C.B. (1995). Posttraumatic stress disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry, 52,1048-1060.
  • Levy-Gigi, E., Szabó, C., Kelemen, O., & Kéri, S. (2013). Association Among Clinical Response, Hippocampal Volume, and FKBP5 Gene Expression in Individuals with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Receiving Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Biological Psychiatry, 74, 793-800.

By Jenev Caddell, PsyD
 Jenev Caddell, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist, relationship coach, and author.