Can 'How You Think' Protect Against PTSD?

By Lila Abassi — May 06, 2016
The type of cognitive strategy chosen could help protect an individual from the negative sequelae of traumatic events. A new study reveals that a technique called "concrete information processing" could be used to prevent intrusive thoughts (a hallmark of PTSD), and blunt emotional responses to subsequent distressing situations.
PTSD courtesy of Shutterstock PTSD courtesy of Shutterstock

By now everyone has heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, especially with regard to military personnel returning from war-ravaged areas.  Traumatic experiences can interfere with how people think, behave, cope, sleep, work, and interact with others. It can become debilitating for some.

In a new paper, published in the journal Behavioral Therapy, two researchers from the University of Oxford aimed to determine whether or not employing cognitive strategies, before a stressful/traumatic situation occurs, could possibly confer protection to the individual. There are two different methods discussed: concrete versus abstract information processing.

To conduct their experiment, the researchers exposed a total of 50 individuals of sound mind (the minimum number of participants to achieve a statistically-significant result)  to traumatic films. This was a “trauma film paradigm,” which is used by clinical psychologists to mimic a traumatic event – while employing either concrete or abstract processing of the event they witnessed. Memories of the event were recorded for one week, and at one-week follow-up participants filled out the Impact of Events Scale – Revised (IES-R).

Based on their results, the authors concluded that individuals employing concrete processing – which focuses on the “how” of a situation, such as, how an event is unfolding, direct experience and what steps are needed to achieve a goal – had greater positive outcomes such as better mood and improved recovery from distressing events. In contrast, abstract information processing – which is a more analytic approach, such as asking “why” something is happening, the “what if” and the implication of an event – led to the development of anxiety and depression.

They hope to be able to apply these results to groups of individuals who knowingly enter into traumatic situations, such as military personnel, emergency first-responders, and the like. They feel that concrete processing of distressing events could protect these people from developing intrusive memories, a hallmark of PTSD, and lower emotional reactivity to subsequent trauma.

“If we consider groups at most risk of PTSD, like military personnel, emergency workers or journalists in conflict zones, they are all groups known to be likely to experience traumatic events,” stated Dr. Jennifer Wild, one of the two authors of the study. “This means they have the opportunity to train themselves in strategies that might protect them from the ill effects. For that reason, we wanted to test whether training people to adopt a concrete processing approach could be one such strategy,” she added.

These results are obtained based on 50 participants, without mental health issues in a clinical setting who viewed movies involving car accidents. Though distressing for sure, how much this would apply to real-world traumatic situations is unknown, since the circumstances are significantly variable as is the psychological status of the individuals experiencing them.

There would be no harm in trying concrete information processing in real-world situations and determining whether the results observed in a clinical setting can be replicated in actual events. If this helps even a small minority, it would be a most welcome intervention.

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