How PTSD Is Treated

When people are seeking out treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many wonder if treatment will provide a cure. There are a number of effective treatments for PTSD, such as various therapy techniques, as well as evidence that medication may be useful for people struggling with symptoms of PTSD. These treatment methods are used to help minimize, or even eliminate, distressing symptoms that people with PTSD often experience.

Medications

Although there are no medications that have been specifically designed to treat PTSD, there are a variety of well-established medications currently used to treat other psychiatric conditions such as mood and anxiety disorders that have been found to be helpful in managing PTSD symptoms.

SSRIs

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly referred to as SSRIs, are a type of medication usually prescribed to help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Examples of common SSRIs that may be used in the treatment of PTSD include:

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)

The two currently approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of PTSD are Zoloft and Paxil. The other medications have been shown effective as well but are considered to be used off-label if used for the treatment of PTSD.

SNRIs

It is noted that SSRIs are usually the common category of medications to turn to in the treatment of PTSD. However, an SNRI can be used as well. SNRI stands for serotonin-noripinephrine reuptake inhibitor and they are often used for the treatment of depression.

Up to 50 percent of those diagnosed with PTSD also meet criteria for the diagnosis of major depressive disorder.

One SNRI, venlaxafine (Effexor), has been found to be particularly effective in the treatment of PTSD.

Other Agents

Not uncommonly, other categories of medications such as the atypical antipsychotics and the anti-hypertensive alpha blocker prazosin may be used to decrease PTSD symptoms. 

Remember that each person will respond differently in their tolerance and the perceived effectiveness of the medications used. It can take some time to find the best fit for you or your loved one. The medication part of your treatment will need to be monitored closely and managed by a trained medical professional.

If you find that you or your loved one experience the following while using your prescribed medication, please notify your medical provider, as some of the side effects to the above medications can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Diarrhea
  • Nervousness
  • Agitation
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Changes in sexual function

Psychotherapy

There are a variety of psychotherapy techniques that can be used in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, there are a few that are growing in researched-based evidence to show their effectiveness in the treatment of PTSD.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Cognitive processing therapy is a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on how your traumatic event is perceived and how you tend to cope with the emotional and mental part of your experience. This process includes educating you on the elements of cognitive behavioral therapy and emphasizes that you and your therapist work together as a team.

Together you collaborate in processing the traumatic event and work through "stuck points." Stuck points are certain thoughts related to the trauma that are preventing recovery. This method of counseling can be conducted in an individual or group format.

EMDR

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is more commonly referred to as EMDR. This is a type of psychotherapy often used with survivors of trauma, particularly those experiencing symptoms of PTSD. This technique utilizes bilateral sensory input such as side-to-side eye movements to help you process difficult memories, thoughts, and emotions related to your trauma.

As described by the EMDR Institute, "Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation but from the client's own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes." In EMDR therapy, the past, present and future are all addressed using an established eight-phase treatment approach.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a style of talk-therapy that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT targets current symptoms and problems, usually lasting 12-16 sessions and can be done in an individual or group format.

Together with your therapist, you will work to identify distortions or unhelpful patterns in your thoughts and feelings related to the trauma. The goal of CBT is to help you return to a place where you regain hope, feel a greater sense of control in your thoughts and behaviors, as well as help you to reduce escape or avoidance behaviors.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies

Trauma-Sensitive Yoga

Yoga has been shown to offer wonderful healing benefit to a variety of populations, including those with mental health conditions, and is widely known for the benefit of stress relief. For people with PTSD, trauma-sensitive yoga can be of great benefit.

David Emerson, the practitioner who first coined the term trauma-sensitive yoga, worked closely on a funded research project with trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk. Their research showed that this particular style of yoga helped to significantly reduce PTSD symptoms in their participants. As compared to other styles of yoga, trauma-sensitive yoga focuses on more gentle movements and less hands-on adjustment.

Acupuncture

This method of healing is a Chinese medicine energy practice that involves inserting thin needles into certain areas of the body to help prevent or relieve health issues. Approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs as an approved complementary and alternative medicine treatment for PTSD, studies have shown acupuncture to be safe and cost-effective. Common reports by patients include a significant reduction in feelings of stress and anxiety.

Innovative Treatments

Virtual Reality Exposure

Exposure therapy has been shown effective in the treatment of many anxiety-related disorders, as it helps you approach aspects of your trauma with less fear, working to become desensitized to the impact of your experience. Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) offers the technology for you to be gradually exposed to your traumatic situation while working closely with a trained clinician.

The visual situations are manipulated by the clinician and talked through together, continuing to expose you to the traumatic event and, over time, helping the event to have less and less emotional impact. As one combat veteran participant stated, "You go over the story over and over again. I got so bored with my own story that it no longer elicited a reaction."

Ketamine Infusion

Originally approved by the FDA for anesthesia, ketamine infusion is emerging as an option for treatment-resistant mental health conditions, including PTSD. Ketamine therapy is administered intravenously at a very low dose, a dose that makes it safe for in-office treatment without producing major side effects. Research has shown that just one infusion treatment for approximately 40 minutes can lead to rapid reduction of PTSD symptoms.

Ketamine infusion therapy is often conducted in a series of treatments over a few weeks. Infusions are given only by trained medical professional approved to administer this form of treatment. Research is ongoing on how to best apply this treatment over time.

MDMA-Assisted Therapy

MDMA is commonly known as the recreational drug ecstasy. However, more and more research is working to explore the use of MDMA in the treatment of mental health conditions, including PTSD. During MDMA-assisted therapy sessions, traumatic memories are reportedly experienced as less threatening as you process the impact of your traumatic experience with your therapist.

In MDMA-assisted therapy, the style is non-directive as the therapist offers you a calm space to process your experiences without fear of judgment or pressure. With the help of the MDMA, it is thought that you can access your traumatic memories without feeling imminent threat or fear, making it easier to process your thoughts and emotions related to the event. Research examining the risks and benefits of this alternative treatment is ongoing.

Where to Find Treatment

There are a variety of treatment options available, with new and innovative techniques emerging and being researched for their effectiveness. The key to accessing treatment is to acknowledge that these resources could be helpful to you or your loved one. People who struggle with PTSD often experience feelings of shame and fear, finding it difficult to initiate seeking help. Many struggle in isolation with hope that the symptoms they are experiencing will go away on their own.

Internet

The internet can be a valuable resource in connecting you to local resources. Online sites, such as the PTSD Alliance, can offer help and guidance to finding treatment programs in your area.

Your Doctor

Connecting with your primary care physician can be a good place to start as well, if you prefer talking with someone in person for local treatment options. Many doctors and other health providers network and become familiar with people who specialize in the treatment of certain conditions, like PTSD.

National Helplines

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Admin Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741
  • Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • National Veterans Foundation Hotline: 1-888-777-4443
  • Gulf War Veterans Hotline: 1-800-796-9699
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)


If you have experienced a traumatic event and are suffering from symptoms of PTSD, it is very important to seek out treatment. If you are looking for a PTSD treatment provider, there are a number of helpful websites that can find the right provider for you. In seeking out a treatment provider, remember to be a consumer. Shop around until you find the treatment provider whom you feel can best address your needs.

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