Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a form of learning that begins at the moment of the exposure to extremely stressful situations and that grows in impact as trauma-related memories are rehearsed and strengthened repeatedly. This somewhat oversimplified view of PTSD yields a powerful prediction: if one could disrupt the rehearsal and strengthening of traumatic memories, a process called reconsolidation of memories, then one might reduce PTSD risk or PTSD severity after potentially traumatic events.
To be certain, it is tricky to attempt to alter traumatic memory reconsolidation. In fact, some early strategies for "trauma debriefing" turned out to strengthen rather than diminish posttraumatic learning.
Despite these challenges, a new study by Dr. Barbara Rothbaum and colleagues reports that a behavioral intervention delivered to patients immediately post-trauma is effective at reducing posttraumatic stress reactions.
"PTSD is a major public health concern," said Rothbaum, professor in Emory's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. "In so many people, what happens immediately after a traumatic event can make things worse or better. Right now, there are no accepted interventions delivered in the immediate aftermath of trauma."
To conduct the study, the researchers approached patients who presented to the local emergency room due to a traumatic event, including rape, car accident, or physical assault. Half of those who agreed to participate received the behavioral intervention, which was started immediately, while the other half did not. All patients were repeatedly assessed for symptoms of depression and stress over a twelve-week period.