Road to Recovery: How PTSD in Veterans Is Treated

“It really is quite individualized towards the patient's goals.”

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Mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are anything but simple. They may take years to develop, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to go away with one therapy session or a “quick fix.” Luckily, there are many treatment options for PTSD in veterans, and they often yield great results.

“Even though PTSD is a complex condition with many symptoms that can interfere with someone's life, it's very important for people to know that there are many treatments out there [that] they can really improve someone's experience in their life,’ says Amanda M. Spray, PhD, psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

The Goals of Treatment

As is the case with many types of anxiety disorders, the goal of treating PTSD isn’t necessarily to make negative thoughts “go away.” In reality, some people continue to have unwanted thoughts for the rest of their life. Instead, treatment teaches you to process and react to those thoughts so that they don’t disrupt your life.

“The goal of treating PTSD is for someone to live a more full life, so that typically includes decrease in symptoms of PTSD,” says Dr. Spray. “It can also include improved relationships with family [and] friends, [or] improved functioning at work. It really is quite individualized towards the patient's goals.”

Types of Therapies for PTSD

After a diagnosis, your and your provider will work together to choose the right treatment option for you. This decision will likely depend on which symptoms are the most problematic for you, according to Dr. Spray.

Treatment options for PTSD in veterans will often include psychotherapy. There are specific types of psychotherapy that are particularly effective for veterans with PTSD, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A type of psychotherapy that focuses on recognizing and reframing negative thought patterns. In turn, this helps change unwanted behaviors. Learn more about CBT here.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy: A subtype of CBT in which the therapist helps you confront the traumatic event in a safe environment.
  • Cognitive processing therapy: A subtype of CBT that “helps someone to evaluate how their beliefs about the world, themselves, and other people really changed following their traumatic event,” says Dr. Spray.

Amanda Burrill, a veteran of the United States Navy, says she was initially hesitant to try therapy for PTSD because she thought it made her “weak.” However, having her therapist listen and understand her story had a powerful impact.

“It turned out to be the most empowering part of my recovery because my therapist [was] believing in the things I had to say,” says Burrill. “I was so used to not being heard.”

Medications That Can Help

Many veterans with PTSD find relief from psychotherapy alone. However, others may also need medications, according to Collin Reiff, MD, psychiatrist NYU Langone Health. The main types of medications to treat PTSD include:

  • SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: “These medications increase the amount of serotonin in certain parts of the brain,” says Dr. Reiff.
  • Alpha-2 agonists: These work in the adrenergic nervous system.
  • SNRIs, or selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors: These are similar to SSRIs except they also increase the amount of norepinephrine as well.
  • Beta blockers: Traditionally a treatment for high blood pressure, these medicines can treat the somatic symptoms of PTSD. For example, they can help reduce racing heartbeat and sweating.

A Better Future

Asking for help can be daunting, and facing your trauma may be overwhelmingly intimidating. For these reasons, seeking help for your PTSD may be one of the bravest things you do. If you commit and stick to it, it may also be one of the most rewarding things you do.

Dr. Spray recalls "countless examples of individuals" who were on the verge of their relationships ending, losing their jobs, or considering taking their own life.  “I think one of the most exciting things is seeing how helpful therapy can be, and seeing someone's life completely change," she says.