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Treating trauma and PTSD: what are your options?

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Earlier this week, Jennifer Guerra introduced us to a family struggling to cope with the aftermath of war as part of Michigan Radio’s Beyond the Battlefield series.

The Luu family is just one of thousands trying to deal with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since being diagnosed, John Luu has tried all kinds of treatment for his PTSD: talk therapy, group therapy, art therapy, and even a two month treatment program out of state. But each day can still be a challenge.

There is no one size fits all treatment for PTSD, and no treatment provides a “cure” – just help with managing symptoms. Even when two people witness the same terrorizing event, they can have completely different reactions that might require different kinds of help. Finding a method that works for you can be tricky; it can cost a lot of time, money, and energy. Here's an outline of some of the more popular and effective treatments.  

  • Talk therapy has been a huge help to some trauma survivors. Individual therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) both work to change a person’s thinking patterns to make thoughts – and unpleasant memories - easier to manage. Another form of talk therapy that specifically helps with PTSD is exposure therapy, where clients essentially become desensitized to haunting memories by talking about them over and over again.
  • Group therapy offers the chance to connect with others that can relate to what trauma survivors have been through. Support groups often accompany other forms of treatment but send a powerful message: you are not alone. A list of Michigan support groups for all kinds of issues can be found here.
  • EMDR. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) involves focusing on stimuli like flashing lights or hand taps while talking about traumatic memories. By engaging both sides of your brain while talking about trauma, it helps your body better process what’s happening.
  • Medication. For people who want to take the medication route, antidepressants are pretty commonly prescribed to vets with PTSD symptoms. The FDA approved selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) specifically for PTSD treatment. Other meds that might help include mood stabilizers and alpha- and beta- blockers, which impact how the brain processes memories.
  • Exercise can provide a lot of relief for vets with PTSD. There are exercise groups specifically for vets and vet supporters across Michigan - like Team Red, White, and Blue - that get together regularly to de-stress. Some vets also swear by yoga.
  • Nontraditional treatments like mindfulness practice and meditation have made a huge difference for some trauma survivors. Although you don’t see it often, service dogs that help vets cope with triggers when they arise have also been helpful.
  • Medical marijuana was recently approved in Michigan for the treatment of PTSD. There’s not enough concrete research to say whether it’s effective and safe, but there are groups of vets who support it.

Treating PTSD is really an emerging field, so experimental treatments – like “brain zapping” (aka magnetic resonance therapy) – pop up all the time.

The next step in finding treatments for PTSD is getting help for families trying to navigate it together – which they desperately need.

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