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Couples therapy helps relieve PTSD symptoms

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About one in 12 Americans experience post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives after experiencing a violent crime, war atrocities, or some other wrenching event. All too often, the flashbacks, anxiety, insomnia, and withdrawal from everyday life lead to marriage conflicts and divorce. Now, though, a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that a specific form of couple therapy can 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 weekly therapy sessions at the VA Boston Healthcare System or in a Toronto research center, or assigned to be in a control group. Those with PTSD who had the couple therapy experienced a greater improvement after 15 weekly sessions compared with those who didn’t have therapy.

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“About 80 percent of the participants in the treatment group had a loss of their PTSD diagnosis by the end of the study, compared with 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 who underwent therapy reported they were satisfied in their relationship at the end of the study compared with those who didn’t get help.

Previous research has shown that social support is crucial for successful treatment of the mental disorder.In that earlier researcher, patients were encouraged to repeatedly recall the traumatic event 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 new study took a different approach, said Monson. It helped PTSD patients and their partners find meaning in the event rather than rehashing the “nitty-gritty details.” Couples were also instructed to take part in activities that they’d been avoiding because of the PTSD, such as going out for dinner or spending time with friends.

Monson said her research team plans to expand the study to include other close social connections in couple therapy, including parents, siblings, or war buddies to see if including non-romantic partners can be just as effective.

Those findings could be key, because 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 should look for mental health providers trained in PTSD couple therapy. Therapists can be found on a website run by the authors of the new study. The site is called www.coupletherapy forptsd.com.

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 last week in the same journal found that specific exposure treatments designed to address PTSD, in which patients conjured their traumatic memories to work through them in therapy, didn’t work any better than standard treatments for substance abuse, highlighting the difficulty in finding effective treatments for those with more severe PTSD.

TheKidsRAllRight wrote: Sounds great unless it’s the *relationship* that’s giving you the PTSD in the first place! Different problem I suppose.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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