About 1 in 12 Americans experience post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives after experiencing a violent crime, war zone, or other traumatic event; all too often, the flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, and withdrawal from everyday life leads to marriage conflicts and divorce. Now, though, new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that a specific form of couple therapy can both improve symptoms of PTSD and lead to stronger romantic relationships.
In the trial, 40 heterosexual and homosexual couples -- with one partner having PTSD -- were given either weekly therapy sessions in the VA Boston Healthcare System or in a Toronto research center or were assigned to be in a control group; those with PTSD who had the couple therapy experienced a greater improvement after 15 weekly sessions of therapy compared to those who didn’t have the therapy.
“About 80 percent of the participants in treatment group had a loss of their PTSD diagnosis by the end of the study compared to 20 percent of those in the control group,” said study author Candice Monson, a psychologist at Ryerson University in Toronto. A far greater percentage of patients and their partners reported that they were satisfied in their relationship at the end of the study compared to those in the control group.
Previous research has shown that social support is crucial for successful treatment of the mental disorder where patients may be encouraged to “relive” the traumatic event, repeatedly recalling the violent incident in as much detail as possible to help their brain become desensitized to the painful memories and move on from them.
The couple therapy practiced in the study, however, took a different approach, said Monson, helping PTSD patients and their partners find meaning in the event rather than rehashing the “nitty gritty details.”
Couples are also instructed to take part in activities that they’d been avoiding due to the PTSD like going out for dinner or spending time with friends.
Monson said her research team now plans to expand the study to include other close social connections in couple therapy like parents, siblings, or war buddies to see if including non-romantic partners can be just as effective.
Those findings could be key since many PTSD patients aren’t in committed relationships or may be lacking a partner willing to accompany them to therapy, said Lisa Najavits, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study. (Patients also need to look for mental health providers specifically trained in PTSD couple therapy, which can be found on this website run by the JAMA study authors.)
Najavits also pointed out that the study didn’t include PTSD patients who were currently battling alcohol or drug addiction -- a common occurrence in those dealing with psychological trauma. A second study also published today in the same journal found that specific exposure treatments designed to address PTSD didn’t work any better than standard treatments for substance abuse highlighting the difficulty in finding effective treatments for those with more severe PTSD.