Posttraumatic stress (PTSD) is a serious psychological condition that can significantly impair a person’s quality of life. For military personnel, PTSD rates are extremely high. Veterans who have experienced trauma may struggle with many different symptoms of PTSD. They may be hypersensitive to situations which remind them of the trauma and they avoid or suppress emotions that are related to the trauma. This form of expressive suppression, although perceived as an effective coping strategy by many who have PTSD, may actually do more harm than good. When a natural form of expression is suppressed or avoided after it has developed, the result can cause further exacerbation of PTSD symptoms. On the other hand, using cognitive reappraisal of an emotion before it has developed fully can allow a person to change their emotional reaction, and therefore the expression, of that emotion. It is believed that cognitive appraisal, and therapies that teach cognitive appraisal techniques, can be highly beneficial at reducing symptoms of PTSD.
To test this theory, Matthew Tyler Boden of the Center for Health Care Evaluation at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System recently assessed how well Cognitive Processing Therapy, a treatment designed to improve cognitive reappraisal, reduced PTSD symptoms in a sample of male veterans. He evaluated their use of both cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression before and after treatment, and also measured the severity of their PTSD symptoms. Boden found that the therapy was highly effective at reducing symptoms by way of increasing cognitive reappraisals. Prior to and after treatment, the participants with high levels of expressive suppression had the most severe PTSD symptoms, demonstrating the negative impact of this type of coping. However, in those that developed and applied cognitive reappraisal, the decrease in symptom severity was directly associated with the use of this adaptive strategy. Boden believes that these findings underscore the importance of teaching clients with PTSD the value of adaptive coping techniques such as cognitive reappraisal. In military populations, the impact of this type of therapy could decrease not only symptom severity, but also risk for further psychological impairment, deterioration of well-being, and even suicide. Boden added, “Indeed, incorporating emotion regulation skill training into existing PTSD treatments may help to achieve these benefits.”
Boden, Matthew Tyler, et al. (2013). Emotion regulation and posttraumatic stress disorder: A prospective investigation. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 32.3 (2013): 296-314. Print.
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