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New study: understanding the impact of traumatic experiences

A new study has been launched to learn more about PTSD and complex PTSD in order to develop better therapies for those affected.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short, is a name given to a set of symptoms that can develop after a major traumatic experience. These traumatic experiences are shocking or frightening events that don’t usually happen to a person.

Examples include serious accidents, sexual assault, or experiences in the military. PTSD can start after events that have been experienced personally or witnessed happening to somebody else.

Symptoms of PTSD include reliving the traumatic experience through upsetting thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares, avoiding memories or reminders of the trauma, and feeling constantly on-edge or on the look-out for danger.

It’s also common for people with PTSD to struggle with feelings of guilt or shame about what happened, even if it wasn’t their fault.

What is complex PTSD?

Like PTSD, complex PTSD can start after many different traumatic events, but it is particularly common after experiences that go on for a long time, happen repeatedly, or happen in childhood.

It’s also more likely to develop after traumatic experiences that are inflicted by another person.

Some examples include childhood abuse or neglect, domestic abuse, war, or torture.

Complex PTSD includes many of the symptoms of PTSD, as well as additional symptoms including difficulties understanding or controlling emotions, having problems in relationships, and having negative beliefs about the self or other people.

Although medical professionals have recognised the symptoms of complex PTSD for decades, it has only more recently been formally recognised as a diagnosis.

Can PTSD and complex PTSD be treated?

There is good evidence that psychological therapies are more effective than medication for the treatment of PTSD.

The strongest evidence is for psychological therapies with a trauma-focus, that is, therapies which concentrate on memories of the traumatic experience and thoughts and feelings related to it.

Cognitive behavioural therapy with a trauma-focus and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) are the treatments most strongly recommended for use in the NHS and by clinical treatment guidelines across the world.

Unfortunately, these therapies are not always readily accessible.

In addition, they are not universally effective, and some people do not respond to them.

We are less certain about the efficacy of therapies for complex PTSD, but there is some evidence for therapies that build skills for living in the present while making meaning of the past, but these specialist therapies are not widely available.

This points to a need for new or modified therapies for PTSD and complex PTSD.

What are we doing for PTSD?

Using data from our cohort, we have learned a lot about PTSD and complex PTSD. We have reported on hidden trauma among people with experiences of mental ill-health, self-stigma in PTSD, and on PTSD and complex PTSD experienced alongside other mental health diagnoses.

We have conducted clinical trials of many existing treatments for PTSD, including 3MDR and the Rewind Technique and we are currently evaluating EMDR delivered to Veterans face-to-face vs. remotely.

We have developed a digital guided self-help programme for PTSD and found evidence that it is just as effective as therapy delivered face-to-face and this is now used in the NHS.

We are currently developing a guided self-help programme for complex PTSD and plan to do the same for PTSD and CPTSD in military Veterans.

How can you help?

As part of our ongoing commitment to understanding more about PTSD and complex PTSD, we are launching an online survey.

We hope to learn more about the reasons some people develop PTSD and complex PTSD after traumatic experiences and how this impacts the lives of those affected.

This information will help us modify existing treatments for PTSD and develop new therapies for the future with the overall aim of improving the health and wellbeing of people affected by trauma.

Take part in our research

If you’ve experienced a traumatic event, you could help us better understand PTSD and complex PTSD by completing our online study.

The survey should take about 10-15 minutes to complete, and you will be invited to answer some questions about your experiences of trauma (as a child and in adulthood) and your mental health.

Take part online today and help us make a difference.


On our blog

Dr Catrin Lewis

Dr Catrin Lewis is a researcher at the National Centre for Mental Health at Cardiff University.

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