Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop in some people after a traumatic event. It is believed to be the result of how the brain processes what has happened both during and after the event. PTSD can make someone feel like the event is happening over and over again. It can cause anger, sleeplessness, and anxiety and significantly impact day to day life. There are several different types of trauma that can lead to PTSD but adolescents with a history of sexual abuse are a particularly vulnerable group.
Researchers wanted to determine if supportive counseling or prolonged exposure therapy was more effective for helping adolescents with PTSD due to sexual abuse. The trial, published in JAMA, found that prolonged exposure therapy showed greater benefits than supportive counseling.
The trial randomized 61 adolescent girls with PTSD to 14, 60-90 minutes sessions of prolonged exposure therapy or supportive counseling. Prolonged exposure therapy encourages participants to approach traumatic feelings and thoughts with a counselor. Repeated exposure to these feeling and learned coping skills help decrease the intensity of PTSD. Supportive therapy is a therapeutic approach that encourages and reinforces healthy thought patterns.
The severity of PTSD symptoms were determined by severity scales completed by counselors. The trial also assessed differences in patient-reported severity. The trial found that girls who had received prolonged exposure therapy had greater improvements in symptoms and severity during treatment and up to 12 months after therapy. Improvements were noted in:
- Counselor assessed PTSD severity
- Patient reported PTSD severity
- Complete cessation of PTSD
- Depression symptoms
A randomized control trial is considered a very reliable form of research. However, a single trial with a small group of participants does not absolutely confirm a benefit but suggests the exposure therapy may be more successful than supportive therapy. More trials will need to be done to confirm the benefits. This trial is helpful in that it isolated treatment to adolescent girls, so it may be a therapy worth trying for adolescent girls with PTSD.
PTSD is a complex health issue that involves both physical and emotional components. If someone you know is having difficulty recovering from a trauma, look for resources to help you understand about PTSD and encourage them to get counseling. If you believe you have PTSD seek counseling to help you manage the symptoms. Which type of therapy may depend on your specific experience and personality. Discuss different therapy option with your counselor or therapist. Consider trying other therapies if you are not finding benefits with your current therapy.
Foa EB, McLean CP, Capaldi S, Rosenfield D. Prolonged exposure vs supportive counseling for sexual abuse-related PTSD in adolescent girls: a randomized clinical trial.
JAMA. 2013 Dec 25;310(24):2650-7.
Last reviewed November 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
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