Alternative Therapies on the Rise Among People with PTSD

There are many treatments available to address symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, clients sometimes avoid treatments that cause them to re-experience the traumatic events that brought them to therapy. Fear, anxiety, and depression often accompany PTSD, and conventional evidence-based treatments (EBT) have low rates of completion because of the emotional overwhelm experienced by clients. For this reason, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) strategies have been created. These include mindfulness-based approaches, meditation, and other more subtle forms of therapy that allow clients to skillfully manage their symptoms of trauma as they explore them. Many individuals who undergo EBT use CAM in conjunction with it in order to be able to navigate the often difficult waters of their pasts by regulating their psychological and biological responses. Although a large portion of the population uses CAM therapies for various emotional issues, little is known about the frequency at which CAM is used for clients with PTSD.

To get a better understanding of how often CAM is used for PTSD, Daniel J. Libby of the VA New England Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center in West Haven, Connecticut, reviewed data from 599 PTSD clients who were part of a larger survey. He found that nearly 40% of the clients used one of the 15 available CAM therapies during their treatment. The most commonly used types of CAM were exercise therapy and relaxation or meditation. He also discovered that the individuals who were most likely to use CAM were women, those with high levels of education, and older individuals. Participants who reported having another mental health issue in addition to PTSD were also among the most likely to use CAM techniques. The study showed that clients who used CAM in conjunction with EBT and exposure therapies had the highest rates of positive outcome. Libby added, “Thus, clinicians should encourage patients to adopt safe and effective CAM practices prior to and while undergoing the trauma-processing component of evidence-based PTSD treatments.”

Libby, D. J., Pilver, C. E., & Desai, R. (2012). Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Among Individuals With Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027082

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Clancy

    March 1st, 2012 at 5:09 AM

    If they don’t wish to relive the traumatic events then how are they ever supposed to be able to work thru the issue and get it behind them? I know that it must be difficult for many to confront the past especially when it may have brought them so much pain in life; but you have to know that the only way to overcome those demons is to face them head on and tell them that they are no longer able to define who you are. Easier said than done I am sure, and I have never had this kind of experience, but as an outsider it looks like that would be the only way to get full treatment.

  • PaulettE

    March 1st, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    I like it that we are starting to think outside of the box and come up with some alternatives for treatment for ptsd patients. There are so many different ways that people can get back their quality of life but we have been too afraid to pursue that. But now it sounds like a major change is on the horizon in this field of treatment and that is super encouraging for someone who is crippled by the effects of ptsd.

  • Cary

    March 3rd, 2012 at 5:46 AM

    Here is the one thing about this that would scare me just a bit: are we going so far outside of the mainstream that we are going to get away from the tried and true?
    Don’t get me wrong, I know that there is always room for improvement no matter how well something works.
    But sometimes there is no need to keep trying something else if something that you are comfortable with is already working.
    Just trying something new for the sake of trying something new can get you off track and do more harm than good.
    I simply hope that patients and providers alike will proceed with caution, that’s all.

  • DariusClark

    March 3rd, 2012 at 4:00 PM

    Clancy- u don’t have PTSD so u don’t know how it must feel to have to relive those things again and again. Would u really like to relive the worst experiences of ur own life time and again? Highly doubtful

  • Pace

    March 4th, 2012 at 5:36 AM

    Obviously there are alot of patients that are affected by PTSD. Why wouldn’t there continue to be research into new and innovative methods to treat them? You can’t get stuck in one way of thinking and expect that this is always going to be the answer. That is rarely going to be the case and most professionals will recognize this. Some things will work and some will not but we will never know unless we continue to try.

  • Nurse Jill

    March 5th, 2012 at 6:56 PM

    Talking about trauma reactivates the hardwiring of our systems to re-experience uncomfortable physical symptoms associated with the trauma. Words speak to the higher cortex (trauma lives in the survival brain where the ‘felt sense in the body’ is the language understood at that level). Mindfulness, aromatherapy, and Light touch modalities (healing touch, reiki, acupuncture) speak more effectively to the reptilian brain to help settle the system. The body has a remarkable capacity to heal. I refer the reader to, and for more information.

  • Susan Pease Banitt, LCSW

    March 6th, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    I am very happy to see this news coming out. I have written a book on the topic: The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD from the Inside Out . There are many alternative and regular therapies laid out in this book. I even have a section on why people don’t want to talk about or re-experience their traumas. Hope you all check it out! My experience is that most of my patients use alternative therapies. The more extreme their history, the more they tend to use it. Extreme trauma and stress cannot be healed one hour/week in an office.

  • Daniel J. Libby

    March 7th, 2012 at 11:58 AM

    As the author of the study described in this article, i would like to point out that the study described did not assess outcomes of treatment; therefore the statement above: “The study showed that clients who used CAM in conjunction with EBT and exposure therapies had the highest rates of positive outcome” is inaccurate. In my clinical experience, self-regulatory treatments like yoga and meditation, do help individuals better tolerate and benefit from exposure-based psychotherapies for PTSD. However, research has not been conducted to confirm this clinical observation; future research should examine whether CAM therapies, as a complement to evidence-based therapies, improves outcomes and/or treatment retention; but as of yet, this research has not been conducted.

  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    April 3rd, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    Neurofeedback and coherent breathing are two more examples of CAM with positive results with PTSD. Drop out rate with the exposure therapies is understandably high. Its nice to have other options to offer.

  • Kirstin Mason, Meaningful Solutions, EP

    June 28th, 2012 at 5:30 AM

    I am part of a treatment team that provides Equine Assisted Psychotherapy to clients who have PTSD. We work with all forms in all ages as in our current client. It happens to be a little girl who has what is called Medical PTSD. Invasive life saving medical help was forced upon her and did the emotional damage. This therapy has helped her face the fears, identify the emotions and stop raging against her family. She now has gained coping skills and learned what does and does not work with the metaphors learned while doing the on the ground activities designed by us with the horses. There are lots of options out there and thought you ought to know. Thanks.

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