Only a minority of individuals exposed to trauma will develop PTSD. In attempting to determine the individual risk factors for PTSD, researchers have begun to observe natural recovery from trauma. One potential difference between those who recover naturally and those who continue to experience distressing symptoms might have to do with avoidance: cognitive, emotional and behavioral.
The cognitive model suggests that the belief that the world is excessively dangerous coupled with beliefs about personal incompetence is important in the development of PTSD (Foa & Rothbaum, 1998). Following a traumatic event, such beliefs might be reinforced and therefore lead to avoidance of everyday, previously normal tasks such as grocery shopping, socializing, and traveling by car. Additionally, beliefs about the importance of maintaining strict control over distressing emotions and thoughts might also be factors mediating the development of PTSD (Ehlers & Clark, 2000). Following a traumatic event, these beliefs might lead to attempts to avoid thoughts and memories of the traumatic event and the associated upsetting emotions.
In contrast, natural recovery from trauma might be enhanced by a willingness to return, over time, to normal activities. This behavior may strengthen beliefs about personal ability to manage difficulty, that other people are not generally dangerous, and that even extremely uncomfortable emotions are manageable.
One CBT approach for PTSD systematically and strategically recreates this recovery process by targeting the tendency to avoid feared situations and distressing recollections and emotions. By systematically approaching the avoided stimuli, the individual can learn the same lessons as the person who recovers without intervention. With the assistance of a skilled cognitive behavior therapist, individuals can acquire more accurate and helpful beliefs about themselves, others, and the world following the experience of a traumatic event.
Ehlers, A., & Clark, D.M. (2000). A cognitive model of posttraumatic stress disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38, 319-345.
Foa, E.B., & Rothbaum, B.O. (1998). Treating the trauma of rape: Cognitive-behavioral therapy for PTSD. New York: Guilford Press.