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Treating post traumatic stress disorder

Research by Professor Anke Ehlers and her colleagues in the Department of Experimental Psychology has led to the development of an effective therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disabling anxiety disorder caused by extremely frightening or distressing events. These can include; warfare, terrorism, road accidents, natural disasters, sudden deaths and violent personal assaults, such as sexual assault, mugging or robbery.  It is estimated that 1-1.5 million adults in the UK suffer from PTSD. The condition can severely affect people’s relationships and ability to work and, if left untreated, often leads to other health problems.

Research by Professor Anke Ehlers and her colleagues in the Department of Experimental Psychology has led to the development of an effective therapy for PTSD that has been approved by the National Institute for Health Care and Excellence (NICE) as one of the first line treatments for PTSD. The first step was to establish the underlying psychological factors that lead to the development and persistence of PTSD.  Once they had a reliable model of the disorder they could set about developing a specific cognitive behavioural therapy to target the central psychological factors behind the condition.

The treatment developed by Anke and her team has proven to be effective in clinical trials and routine clinical care. In 1998 it was successfully used to treat survivors of the Omagh bombings.  This led to the creation of the Omagh Centre for Trauma and Transformation that provided support to over 600 victims of the troubles. As a result of the success in Northern Ireland, the therapy was also made available to survivors of the 7/7 London bombings as part of the NHS response.

The success of the therapy has been recognized both in the UK and worldwide. It was included in the training curriculum for the Government's Improving Access to Psychological Treatments programme, which  aims to train up to 6000 new psychological therapists by 2015.  Anke and her team have been invited to give workshops and keynote lectures on the therapy in numerous countries including Australia, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Poland and the USA.

In a separate study, Anke and her team have shown that an alternative approach to PTSD, ‘individual psychological debriefing’ was not only ineffective but might even be harmful.