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Psychotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder in adults

Barbara O Rothbaum, PhD
Section Editor
Murray B Stein, MD, MPH
Deputy Editor
Richard Hermann, MD


Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe, often chronic and disabling disorder, which develops in some persons following exposure to a traumatic event involving actual or threatened injury to themselves or others. PTSD is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks of past traumatic events, avoidance of reminders of trauma, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbance, all of which lead to considerable social, occupational, and interpersonal dysfunction.

Treatments for PTSD include medications and psychotherapy [1-5]. Among the psychotherapies, clinical trials most strongly support the use of various types of trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT typically includes components of cognitive therapy, exposure, and coping skills training.

This topic addresses psychotherapy for PTSD. The epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and pharmacotherapy for PTSD are discussed separately. Dissociative aspects of PTSD are also discussed separately. The epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and treatment of acute stress disorder are also discussed separately. (See "Posttraumatic stress disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, course, and diagnosis" and "Pharmacotherapy for posttraumatic stress disorder in adults" and "Dissociative aspects of posttraumatic stress disorder: Epidemiology, clinical manifestations, assessment, and diagnosis" and "Acute stress disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, course, and diagnosis" and "Treatment of acute stress disorder in adults".)


Cognitive and behavioral therapies used to treat PTSD include exposure therapy, cognitive therapy, and various combinations of these modalities, often with other components. These modalities are sometimes described collectively as trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) if they specifically focus on the traumatic material. Cognitive approaches help patients to correct erroneous cognitions, while behavioral approaches aim to decrease symptoms through exposure to reminders of the traumatic event.

Theory — Prospective studies indicate that PTSD symptoms are almost universal in the immediate aftermath of trauma [6]. The majority of individuals have symptoms of reexperiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal following a severely traumatic event. For most individuals, these symptoms steadily resolve over time, while those who meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD continue to experience the symptoms. PTSD can thus be viewed as a failure of recovery caused in part by a failure of fear extinction following trauma [6,7].


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Literature review current through: Sep 2016. | This topic last updated: Oct 15, 2015.
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