Trauma Treatment: Evidence-Based Approaches versus Intuituve Approaches

The negative outcomes of past intuitive treatment reinforced one of the most common and fundamental beliefs of PTSD: “I am incompetent.” The woman perceived through past experiences in and out of therapy that something within her was so broken that she was beyond help, leading to a cycle of hopelessness, suicidality, and treatment avoidance.

Exposure Strategies for PTSD Treatment

To reduce or eliminate the experiences of non-fear emotions, such as shame and guilt, the individual needs to correct these unhelpful and inaccurate cognitions using CBT exposure strategies.

Seven Steps for Anger

Catastrophic Thinking: A Transdiagnostic Process Across Psychiatric Disorders

Norman WebNorman Cotterell, Ph.D.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy


Beck and Gellatly (2016) propose that catastrophic thinking is a central feature in psychopathology. Such thinking magnifies both the immediate and eventual consequences of any perceived threat. A variety of disorders can be conceptualized as such: Clients magnify external threats (accidents, attacks, arson) but most notably misinterpret and magnify perceived internal threats. Sensations, thoughts, and emotions are seen as signs of immediate physical or psychological catastrophe.

For example:

  • Panic — immediate catastrophic consequences of an unexpected physical sensation: “If my heart races, I’m dying.” “If I feel lightheaded, I’m about to faint.”
  • Social Phobia — catastrophic misinterpretations of the social consequences of anxiety: “If people see me sweat, I’ll be judged, shunned, rejected or shamed.”
  • Agoraphobia — catastrophic beliefs about the consequences of anxiety: “If I panic, I’ll be trapped.”
  • Specific phobias — catastrophic beliefs about a feared object or situation: “If I get on an airplane, I won’t be able to handle the anxiety.”
  • Health anxiety — catastrophic consequences of an unexpected physical sensation, or image: “If my chest hurts, I have heart, lung, or infectious disease. If the doctor sends me for tests, it means I’m seriously ill.”
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder — Catastrophic misinterpretation of an intrusive thought: “If I think something unacceptable, it means I myself am unacceptable. Thinking it is as bad as doing it.”
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder — Catastrophic beliefs about the reoccurrence of danger: “If it happened before, it’s likely to happen to me again.” “Flashbacks mean danger.”
  • Pain — Catastrophic beliefs about pain and its consequences: “If I’m in pain, it is unsafe to move, and I must stop my activities.”
  • Traumatic Brain injury — Catastrophic misinterpretations of post concussive symptoms: “If I have a headache, my brain injury is getting worse.”

Beck and Gellatly regard such thinking as an essential ingredient in the development and maintenance of these anxiety disorders. They identify 6 essential ingredients of a cycle that fuels them: Catastrophic Beliefs (“I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying,”) triggered by a Precipitating Event (heart palpitations) results in both Anxiety Symptoms (shortness of breath, dizziness, feeling out of control) and an Interpretive Bias (“If my chest hurts, I’m having a heart attack”). These, in turn trigger an Attentional Fixation (“There’s no other way to look at this!”) and an Attentional Bias (“I really need to pay close attention to my chest.”) And these attentional factors serve to refuel the anxiety, the interpretative bias, the catastrophic beliefs and each other.

Beck and Gellatly propose taking catastrophizing into account would be useful in the diagnosis, prediction, prevention, and treatment of psychopathology. Future research and exploration will answer such questions as: Which catastrophic beliefs differentiate which conditions? Who is susceptible to developing such beliefs? How do we educate people to promote resiliency against such beliefs? What interventions will best enable clients to counter these beliefs?

Although they point to catastrophic beliefs as the key essential factor, other factors may serve as points of interventions. Decatastrophizing enables clients to test the validity of catastrophic beliefs through exposure to the sensations. Therapists use panic inductions, for example, to alter the misinterpretation of symptoms. Other techniques, such as cognitive reappraisal, may ameliorate attentional fixation by providing more plausible ways to account for symptoms. Various in-office procedures may modify attentional bias by directing focus to breathing, to objects in the office, or to sounds inside and outside the building. This model may serve as a way to conceptualize the problem and identify where interventions work.

Beck, A.T. & Gellatly, R. Catastrophic Thinking: A Transdiagnostic Process Across Psychiatric Disorders. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2016, pp. 1-12.

RCT of a Brief Phone-Based CBT Intervention to Improve PTSD Treatment Utilization by Returning Service Members

Worried about their reputation and career prospects, returning service members with PTSD may avoid seeking treatment. research blog (1)In a randomized controlled trial, the authors examined engagement in treatment and symptoms among veterans with PTSD who received a brief phone-based intervention to discuss why they had avoided treatment. Veterans who received a call entered treatment sooner and experienced more immediate reductions in PTSD symptoms than veterans who received usual care. By six months, differences between the two groups had faded, suggesting that adding a second phone call might be warranted.


Many service members do not seek care for mental health and addiction problems, often with serious consequences for them, their families, and their communities. This study tested the effectiveness of a brief, telephone-based, cognitive-behavioral intervention designed to improve treatment engagement among returning service members who screened positive for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).



Service members who had served in Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom who screened positive for PTSD but had not engaged in PTSD treatment were recruited (N=300), randomly assigned to either control or intervention conditions, and administered a baseline interview. Intervention participants received a brief cognitive-behavioral therapy intervention; participants in the control condition had access to usual services. All participants received follow-up phone calls at months 1, 3, and 6 to assess symptoms and service utilization.



Participants in both conditions had comparable rates of treatment engagement and PTSD symptom reduction over the course of the six-month trial, but receiving the telephone-based intervention accelerated service utilization (treatment engagement and number of sessions) and PTSD symptom reduction.



A one-time brief telephone intervention can engage service members in PTSD treatment earlier than conventional methods and can lead to immediate symptom reduction. There were no differences at longer-term follow-up, suggesting the need for additional intervention to build upon initial gains.


Stecker, T., McHugo, G., Xie, H., Whyman, K., & Jones, M. (January 01, 2014). RCT of a brief phone-based CBT intervention to improve PTSD treatment utilization by returning service members. Psychiatric Services (washington, D.c.), 65, 10, 1232-7.

Effectiveness of Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in a Community-Based Program

New Study (1)Abstract:

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) is a widely used treatment model for trauma-exposed children and adolescents (Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2006). The Healthy Coping Program (HCP) was a multi-site community based intervention carried out in a diverse Canadian city. A randomized, waitlist-control design was used to evaluate the effectiveness of TF-CBT with trauma-exposed school-aged children (Muller & DiPaolo, 2008). A total of 113 children referred for clinical services and their caregivers completed the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children (Briere, 1996) and the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Young Children (Briere, 2005). Data were collected pre-waitlist, pre-assessment, pre-therapy, post-therapy, and six months after the completion of TF-CBT. The passage of time alone in the absence of clinical services was ineffective in reducing children’s posttraumatic symptoms. In contrast, children and caregivers reported significant reductions in children’s posttraumatic stress (PTS) following assessment and treatment. The reduction in PTS was maintained at six month follow-up. Findings of the current study support the use of the TF-CBT model in community-based settings in a diverse metropolis. Clinical implications are discussed.

Konanur S., Muller R. T., Cinamon J.S., Thornback K. & Zorzella K. P. (2015). Effectiveness of Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in a ommunity-based program. Child Abuse Negl. 2015 Aug 25. pii: S0145-2134(15)00242-2. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.07.013.

Workshop Participant Spotlight – Amanda May, LLMSW

Amanda, a recent graduate of University of Michigan (but a Spartans fan!) attended the Beck Institute CBT for a PTSD workshop, taught by Dr. Aaron Brinen. She traveled from Michigan with 8 other trainees from Henry Ford Health System. At HFHS, Amanda is a clinical therapist for adults and teenagers; she also runs a substance abuse group. DSC_0328

The group from HFHS had the opportunity to travel to Philadelphia and attend training at Beck Institute, because their organization recently learned that they will be providing services to first responders in the Detroit area. The CBT for PTSD workshop was the perfect fit.

When she learned she would have the opportunity to attend a workshop at Beck Institute, Amanda was thrilled because she learned and loved CBT in graduate school. “And let’s be honest, the Beck Institute is prestigious.” Other than meeting Dr. Aaron Beck, and learning more about prolonged exposure therapy, Amanda most appreciated that “Dr. Brinen is amazing with talking about difficult topics and keeping us engaged.”

Effects of Psychotherapy on Trauma-related Cognitions in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Meta-Analysis

New Study (1)Abstract

In the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incorporate trauma-related cognitions. This adaptation of the criteria has consequences for the treatment of PTSD. Until now, comprehensive information about the effect of psychotherapy on trauma-related cognitions has been lacking. Therefore, the goal of our meta-analysis was to determine which psychotherapy most effectively reduces trauma-related cognitions.

Our literature search for randomized controlled trials resulted in 16 studies with data from 994 participants. We found significant effect sizes favoring trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy as compared to nonactive or active nontrauma-focused control conditions of Hedges’ g = 1.21, 95% CI [0.69, 1.72], p < .001 and g = 0.36, 95% CI [0.09, 0.63], p = .009, respectively. Treatment conditions with elements of cognitive restructuring and treatment conditions with elements of exposure, but no cognitive restructuring reduced trauma-related cognitions almost to the same degree. Treatments with cognitive restructuring had small advantages over treatments without cognitive restructuring.

We concluded that trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy effectively reduces trauma-related cognitions. Treatments comprising either combinations of cognitive restructuring and imaginal exposure and in vivo exposure, or imaginal exposure and in vivo exposure alone showed the largest effects.


Diehle, J., Schmitt, K., Daams, J.G., Boer, F., & Lindauer, R.J. (2014). Effects of psychotherapy on trauma-related cognitions in posttraumatic stress disorder: a meta-analysis. Journal of  Traumatic Stress, 27(3), 257-264. doi: 10.1002/jts.21924.