Many people have some symptoms of PTSD in the first couple of weeks after a traumatic event, but most recover on their own or with the help of family and friends. For this reason, treatment does not usually start until at least 2 weeks after a traumatic experience.
The most effective treatment varies according to the individual, so it may be necessary to try different approaches to find out what works best.
Drug treatments are not recommended within 4 weeks of symptoms appearing unless the severity of the person’s distress cannot be managed by psychological means alone. Generally, it’s best to start with psychological treatment rather than use medication as the first and only solution to the problem.
Treating PTSD with psychotherapy
- Trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy (TF-CBT), which involves working through memories of the trauma in a safe and structured environment, modifying unhelpful beliefs and thoughts, and gradual exposure to triggers which are being avoided. This also includes many of the features of CBT mentioned above.
- Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), which involves working through memories of the trauma while going through a series of eye movements.
It may take between 8 and 12 psychotherapy sessions to begin to get relief from symptoms. For some people, the condition may have become chronic and can take much longer to treat. The sooner treatment begins the better.
Medications for PTSD
Antidepressant medication can be effective for PTSD, and may be recommended if symptoms do not completely resolve with psychotherapy, or the person is unable to have therapy for some reason. Antidepressants can reduce anxiety and fear, depression and anger.
It’s important to be aware of the possible side effects and to maintain regular contact with a doctor or mental health practitioner regarding their use.
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Supporting someone with PTSD
Research has shown that support from family and friends is an important element in helping someone overcome the debilitating effects of PTSD. Couples or family therapy can help to restore damaged relationships, and in some cases family members may need to seek support of their own. With support and the right treatment, the symptoms of PTSD can diminish over time and it is possible for the person to live life fully again.
If a person with PTSD has feelings of self-harm or suicide, then treat this as a medical emergency and dial triple zero (000) for an ambulance or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.
For detailed information on the most effective treatments for PTSD, see The Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Last reviewed: November 2016