Emily Malcoun, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

What is PTSD?

Exposure to traumatic events is unfortunately a relatively common experience. A trauma occurs when an individual experiences threat of death or serious injury, or witnesses threat of death or serious injury to another. This may include physical or sexual assault, combat, motor vehicle accidents, serious work accidents, life-threatening medical illness and the traumatic loss of a loved one.

People may react to a trauma in many different ways. Normal reactions to a traumatic event include:

  • Re-experiencing the event through flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive, unwanted memories, and feeling emotionally upset when reminded of the event
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Avoidance of trauma-related memories, feelings, situations, activities and other reminders
  • Emotional numbness
  • desire to isolate, difficulty connecting with and feeling different from others
  • Feeling easily startled or checking to see who and what is around you
  • A sense of foreshortened future

These symptoms are considered part of the normal reaction to a trauma and typically last up to one month following the event. When a person has many of these symptoms and it last longer than a month, it is called posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD develops when individuals fail to recover from these normal reactions to a traumatic event. PTSD can interfere with daily living activities, relationships and work functioning.

Twenty years of research indicates that the most effective known treatment for PTSD is Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), developed by Dr. Edna Foa and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. Most sufferers experience vast or full relief from PTSD symptoms in 8-15 sessions. The therapist supports the sufferer to face trauma-related thoughts, feelings, memories, and situations that are avoided but safe. While treatment may be difficult at first, those who persist find that it gets easier and that relief comes quickly. Individuals are given the opportunity to emotionally process or "digest" the traumatic memory so that it no longer haunts them. Individuals develop a way to think about the trauma that allows them to move forward with their lives. Sufferers are able to put the trauma "in its proper place," and control the memory rather than the memory controlling them.