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The efficacy of psychotherapeutic and pharmacotherapeutic approaches in the treatment of PTSD can be regarded as empirically demonstrated (Foa et al., 2000; Livanou, 2001; Sherman, 1998). Overall, effect sizes seem to be higher for psychotherapy as compared with medication (van Etten and Taylor, 1998). Psychotherapy for PTSD includes the following approaches:

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) uses a variety of techniques such as exposure, cognitive processing and restructuring, stress inoculation training, assertiveness training, and relaxation techniques. CBT usually is offered as a time-limited psychotherapy, averaging approximately eight to 12 sessions, with meetings once or twice weekly. Many well-controlled trials with a mixed variety of trauma survivors have demonstrated that CBT is effective in treating PTSD (Foa et al., 2000; Foa and Rothbaum, 1998; Foa et al., 1991; Marks et al., 1998; Tarrier et al., 1999). More specifically, exposure therapy currently is seen as the treatment modality with the strongest evidence for efficacy (Foa et al., 2000).

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a technique in which the patient, under the guidance of a therapist, carries out horizontal eye movements while he or she recalls the traumatic scenes. Although the clinical efficacy of this technique has been well documented, EMDR still remains controversial. A meta-analysis revealed that EMDR is similarly effective in comparison to other exposure techniques but that eye movements in particular have no incremental therapeutic effect (Davidson and Parker, 2001).

Psychodynamic Therapy seeks to reengage normal mechanisms by addressing what is unconscious and, in tolerable doses, making it conscious. This is accomplished by exploring the psychological meaning of a traumatic event. It may include sifting and sorting through wishes, fantasies, fears and defenses stirred up by the event (Foa et al., 2000). Transference and countertransference, and the therapist-patient relationship, are crucial factors in this approach. Although varying in length, psychodynamic therapy is usually of longer duration than CBT. Unfortunately, only few empirical investigations with randomized designs and validated outcome measures have been reported (Brom et al., 1989), so currently there is no sufficient evidence indicating that psychodynamic therapy is effective in reducing PTSD symptomatology.

Brief Eclectic Psychotherapy (BEP) has been proposed by Gersons and collaborators as a fully manualized, multimodal treatment approach that combines educational, cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic elements. It comprises five essential elements: 1) psychoeducation; 2) guided imagery (exposure); 3) writing assignments and mementos; 4) the domain of meaning and integration; and 5) a farewell ritual. BEP proved to be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms in police officers suffering from chronic PTSD, as compared with a wait-list control group (Gersons et al., 2000). In addition, the improvement demonstrated for PTSD symptoms progressed further in all outcome measures, including return to work, three months after termination of treatment. However, these promising results need to be replicated independently, applying BEP in more general trauma populations.

There is no doubt that psychotherapy is an effective component in the treatment of patients suffering from PTSD. Why then should we keep searching for new psychotherapeutic approaches? Here are some reasons:

  • Dropout rates from studies of CBT usually are around 20 percent (Ballenger et al., 2000). Up to 58 percent of patients who completed CBT are still diagnosed with PTSD at posttreatment assessment (Resick et al., 2002; Tarrier et al., 1999). Furthermore, only 32 percent to 66 percent of patients included achieved good end-state functioning (Marks et al., 1998; Resick et al., 2002). Therefore, alternative therapies should be tested so that patients can be offered different treatment options.
  • There is a high probability of PTSD becoming a chronic condition. Although some patients recover spontaneously from PTSD—mainly during the first year after a trauma (Kessler et al., 1995; Rothbaum and Foa, 1993)—and others undergo treatment, the mean duration of PTSD episodes amounts to several years (Ballenger et al., 2000; Kessler et al., 1995). Thus, treatment for PTSD should not focus exclusively on specific symptoms, such as flashbacks and avoidance, but on basic life changes and existential questions as well since such issues are of relevance for patients who suffer from chronic PTSD.
  • In many intervention studies, highly selected samples are treated with a one-dimensional, highly structured treatment protocol in a university setting. This is justifiable from a methodological viewpoint. However, such a procedure reduces the complexity of a therapeutic process in such a way that it becomes uncertain whether the results can be translated into the everyday experience of a psychotherapist in private practice. Psychotherapy research, therefore, should start evaluating multimodal, integrative treatment protocols that do justice to the various aspects of posttraumatic psychiatric morbidity in realistic clinical settings.

The incidence of traumatic events is increasing worldwide, confronting us with cycles of violence that are becoming more destructive. Further research into the devastating consequences of traumatic events and, even more urgent, into the development of more effective therapeutic interventions aimed at ameliorating trauma-related psychiatric disorders is of utmost importance.


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Ulrich Schnyder, MD, is professor of psychiatry and head of the department of psychiatry at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland