The Critical Role of Counseling for PTSD Treatment

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Group of people in a counselling sessionAfter undergoing a traumatic event, many people experience a number of side effects that drastically affect their day-to-day lives.  Some may have recurring negative memories or have trouble sleeping, while other symptoms may include jumpiness or problems maintaining relationships with family members and friends. Left untreated, these reactions to trauma may lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that affects millions of people each year, at great cost to those who are diagnosed. In fact, according to experts at Marketwatch. “PTSD has one of the highest costs to treat of any disorder.”

Below, we define Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, outline the risk factors and diagnosis, and emphasize the importance of counseling and treatment.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition brought on by seeing or experiencing a shocking event. Although PTSD is typically associated with soldiers returning from military service, a PTSD diagnosis can happen to anyone who has experienced trauma. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and repeated uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic event, as well as other physical and mental complications.

PTSD is not an uncommon disorder. An estimated 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced a traumatic event, and as many as 20 percent of those individuals go on to develop PTSD. Statistics from the National Center for PTSD indicate that nearly 4 percent of men and 10 percent of women will develop PTSD at some point in their life.

What Are the Risk Factors for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Those at risk for developing PTSD may have experienced the following:

  • Domestic or intimate partner violence
  • Rape or sexual abuse
  • Physical assault
  • Random acts of violence
  • Neglect
  • Unexpected events including car accidents, natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or industrial accidents
  • Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
  • The sudden loss of a loved one

Additionally, those who have military experience, or who have served as EMS workers, police officers, firemen, and search and rescue teams are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with PTSD.4

Although experiencing these events does not guarantee that individuals will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, statistics indicate that those who experience severe physical abuse such as rape, severe assault, or other sexual trauma are 23.7 to 49 percent more likely to develop PTSD. Other traumatic experiences such as natural disasters or witnessing a tragic event are less likely to lead to PTSD diagnosis.4

How is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Diagnosed?

Not everyone who has experienced a traumatizing event develops PTSD. In fact, many of the symptoms of PTSD are a part of the body’s natural response to stress. While it is normal to have a stressful reaction after a traumatic event, individuals should seek help if symptoms last longer than three months, cause distress, or disrupt their work or home life.5

The National Center for PTSD, outlines four types of PTSD symptoms that individuals can use when concerned about potentially having PTSD.

  1. Reliving the event: Individuals who experience traumatic events may have nightmares, or continuously relive the experience via flashbacks. Those with PTSD may also experience “triggering” events in their day-to-day life where sights, sounds, or smells remind them of their traumatic situation.
  1. Avoiding situations that remind individuals of the experience or event: Those who have been through traumatic experience may try to avoid situations that remind them of the event. It is not uncommon for individuals with PTSD to avoid crowds, driving or public transportation, certain movies or television shows, and keep busy to avoid talking to other people about the event.
  1. Negative changes in beliefs and feelings: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may have the potential to change the way you think about yourself and others, as a result of trauma. Individuals may experience negative feelings towards people they once loved, causing them to detach from important relationships in their life. In addition, individuals may have negative feelings toward the world in general, believing it to be a dangerous, untrustworthy place.
  1. Experiencing hyperarousal: Those who have experienced trauma may be jittery, aroused, or constantly on the lookout for danger. Individuals may have a hard time sleeping, concentrating, and can be easily startled.

Left untreated, PTSD has the potential to affect all aspects of a person’s life including their mental, emotional, and physical health. Additionally, research suggests that extreme trauma has the potential to permanently disrupt or alter brain chemistry. Those who experience any of these symptoms consistently should seek help from a licensed therapist or mental health professional.6

What is the Counselor’s Role in PTSD Treatment?

Counselors play an important role as the first responders in PTSD treatment. While individual treatment will vary from patient-to-patient, counselors help individuals select an appropriate treatment that will help them recover from trauma. There are multiple types of treatment that counselors can use to help their patients, which includes some of the following.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most effective types of counseling for PTSD. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, a counselor helps individuals “understand and change how [patients] think about [their] trauma and its aftermath.” The end goal is to help patients understand how their thoughts about trauma make symptoms of PTSD worse, and help them to identify toxic thoughts and feelings about the situation. Cognitive-behavioral therapy also helps individuals cope with feelings such as anger, guilt, and fear.
  1. Exposure Therapy: Exposure therapy helps patients overcome the fear of their memories of the traumatic event. In this form of therapy, counselors learn to teach clients how to gain control of their thoughts and feelings about the traumatic occurrence. By repeatedly talking about these stressful events, clients and patients feel less overwhelmed.
  1. Virtual Reality Treatment: Virtual reality therapy has been an effective tool in helping clients overcome mental health issues for nearly 20 years. With the advent of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive making VR treatment ever more accessible, VR technology will only continue to grow in years to come.

As it stands currently, VR is typically used for exposure therapy, which is a treatment that exposes patients to a simulated situation that would normally trigger their PTSD. Once exposed, counselors can adequately help their clients master ways to overcome these issues. With this guidance, patients can grow accustomed to processing and overcoming their triggers.

  1. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that originated in the 1980s and used to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic experiences. While it is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a large amount of time to recover from, EMDR treatment has proven that the opposite can be true.

According to the EMDR Institute, “EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.  When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound.  If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes.”

Many studies indicate that 84 to 90 percent of trauma victims that seek EDMR treatment no longer have PTSD after just three 90 minute sessions.

PTSD is a disorder brought on by a traumatic experience and affects millions of people in the United States each year. While the impacts of trauma vary from patient-to-patient, many experience regular flashbacks, avoidance, triggers, and a number of other symptoms that prevent individuals from thriving in their day-to-day lives. With help from a licensed counselor, patients can learn to overcome the negative experience they experience and how to properly manage their PTSD, and live a productive and healthy life.

For compassionate professionals who are interested in helping individuals recover from traumatic life experiences, earning an online Master’s Degree in Counseling from Wake Forest University is the first step to making a difference in an individual’s mental health.

Additional Reading

Counselors: the First Responders of Mental Health
Military Counseling: Helping Service Members and their Families


Market Watch, What PTSD costs families 
Mayo Clinic, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, How Common is PTSD
Very Well Mind, Symptoms and Diagnosis of PTSD
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD Basics
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD Treatment Basics
Business Insider, Virtual reality is about to completely transform psychological therapy
EMDR Institute Inc, What is EMDR?