Teen girls struggling with
post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual abuse do well when treated
with a type of therapy that asks them to repeatedly confront their traumatic
memories, according to a small new study.
The study's results suggest
that "prolonged exposure therapy," which is approved for adults, is
more effective at helping adolescent girls overcome post-traumatic stress
disorder (PTSD) than traditional supportive counselling.
"Prolonged exposure is
a type of cognitive behaviour therapy in which patients are asked to recount
aloud several times their traumatic experience, including details of what
happened during the experience and what they thought and felt during the
experience," said study author Edna Foa, a professor of clinical
psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
New drug reduces traumatic memories
"For example, a girl
that felt shame and guilt because she did not prevent her father from sexually
abusing her comes to realise that she did not have the power to prevent her
father from abusing her, and it was her father's fault, not hers, that she was
abused," Foa said.
recounting of the traumatic events, the patient gets closure on those events
and is able to put it aside as something horrible that happened to her in the
past," she said. "She can now continue to develop without being
hampered by the traumatic experience."
Conducting the study
The researchers focused on
a group of 61 girls, all between the ages of 13 and 18 and all suffering from
PTSD related to sexual abuse that had occurred at least three months before the
study started. No boys were included in the research.
Roughly half of the girls
were given standard supportive counselling in weekly sessions conducted over a
14-week period. During that time, counsellors aimed to foster a trusting
relationship in which the teens were allowed to address their traumatic
experience only if and when they felt ready to do so.
The other patient group was
enlisted in a prolonged exposure therapy program in which patients were
encouraged to revisit the source of their demons in a more direct manner,
albeit in a controlled environment designed to be both contemplative and
The result: After a
one-year follow-up, investigators found the girls in the second group were more
likely to overcome their PTSD and see improvements in overall functioning than
those receiving standard supportive counselling.
What's more, the team found
that prolonged exposure therapy was safe to use among younger patients, even
when given by newly trained counsellors who were used to providing standard
Predicting PTSD before it happens
Analysis of the study
In an editorial that
accompanied the study, Sean Perrin, of the department of psychology at Lund
University in Sweden, said prolonged exposure therapy has already been shown to
be effective among both girls and boys as young as 3 when used as part of an
overall treatment program for anxiety.
"What is unique about
Foa's study is that [the treatment] does not include any other ingredients but
prolonged exposure," Perrin said. "Foa's
study shows that is not necessary with sexually abused teens. They gain
confidence by confronting their fears in a slow, wilful and deliberate
"The bottom line is
that if you or your child is suffering from anxiety or PTSD, a therapist
gradually leading you through exposure, wherein you slowly and willingly
confront your fears, can lead to dramatic improvements in functioning without
the need for medication," Perrin said.
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