We used to think of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only as it applied to soldiers returning from war—their difficulty re-integrating into their previous lives was shown in TV shows and movies, where they were often portrayed having intense flashbacks and heightened startle responses. However, experts have since found that everyday people also experience this illness after living through violent experiences. By shifting focus, PTSD was redefined to also include the result of both direct and indirect exposure to violence and significant emotional losses.
Recent research estimates PTSD affects roughly eight million people each year in the United States. According to the DSM-5, the Psychiatric industry’s standard guide for diagnosis, the current criteria for PTSD includes the following:
- Exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence.
- Symptoms following the event such as intrusive memories, recurring dreams, flashbacks or other bodily reactions to cues related to the event.
- Avoidance of things associated with the event (for example: similar or actual location, people or related feelings or thoughts).
- A generally negative change in thoughts or mood following the event.
- Changes in level of reactivity or heightened arousal beginning or worsening after the event (for example, being startled very easily, feeling “on edge,” or having difficulty sleeping).
It is common for people to experience these symptoms after exposure to a traumatic event. Often, the symptoms resolve over time. However, for some people, these symptoms do not go away and can have a considerable impact on their lives. When this happens, it is recommended that they seek help from a trained therapist. PTSD refers to a specific type of traumatic experience that results in the symptoms listed above. People sometimes have other experiences that can feel traumatic or disruptive to their lives and their sense of safety. Although these experiences may not fit a PTSD diagnosis, they can also be helped through counseling.
There are a lot of different types of treatments for PTSD, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), Narrative Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Therapies.
One treatment option offered by CJE SeniorLife Counseling Services is called Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). For information about CPT, we spoke to Chloe Gremaud, a Counselor with CJE’s Counseling Services. “Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) was developed in the late 1980s,” she said. “It’s evidence-based, meaning it has a large body of research showing clinically-significant improvement in people with PTSD symptoms that are experienced as a result of traumatic experiences, including child abuse, combat, sexual assault, and natural disasters.”
Gremaud explains that CPT uses principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which looks at the link between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, she says, “We fine-tune it for the specific ways that trauma can change those thoughts and behaviors and keep people feeling afraid, ashamed, or down. Then we pinpoint the specific ways of thinking that might get in the way of the natural healing process.”
In other words, CPT teaches people how to “re-conceptualize” the traumatic event so that those memories no longer have as much power over their lives. With the help of their therapist, people learn to approach the traumatic memory in a new way—rather than avoid it— so the beliefs related to the original trauma can be re-examined.
“One of the main things we look at in this treatment is the type of thoughts that develop when someone tries to make sense of a traumatic event. Often, experiencing a traumatic event can change people’s beliefs about themselves and the world they live in,” Gremaud elaborates. “So a big part of CPT is to identify those thoughts that are stuck in someone’s mind and come back again and again, and to really examine where those thoughts came from and whether or not they are holding someone back from healing.”
Gremaud speaks about CPT dealing with beliefs we may have regarding the trauma, including beliefs about fault. “For example, a trauma survivor may go back to the event over and over, thinking about how they could have prevented it from happening if only they made a different choice,” Gremaud says. “Over time, these thoughts can keep someone living in the traumatic event, rather than in the present moment. People can be hyper-vigilant about preventing something like that from ever happening again, because they think it was their fault.” CPT shines a light on “the types of beliefs that keep one living in a cycle of self-blame that, in combination with all these other symptoms that go with PTSD, can keep people re-experiencing all of these very negative emotions.”
Through this formal processing of their trauma with CPT, clients practice recognizing how their traumatic experience resulted in overgeneralized beliefs. They also see over time the negative impact these beliefs have had on their current functioning and on their quality of life. With this knowledge, they can work toward lessening this impact and improving their life. On average, clients receiving treatment with CPT experience significant recovery from PTSD symptoms in 12 sessions. Although the idea of seeking treatment can be scary for a survivor, Gremaud wants anyone considering treatment to know: “You have the strength to heal from this event. After all, you have proven your ability to survive. It is possible to feel better.”
CJE Counseling Services offers services including individual supportive counseling, psychotherapy, and support groups, as well as family and caregiver support available in many CJE offices or as home visits. To learn more about Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) or other CJE Counseling Services, call CJE SeniorLife at 773.508.1000.