Connecticut Professor Researches Better Treatments for Vets with PTSD

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Preliminary results indicate that experimental RESET therapy is highly effective in treating PTSD in comparison with established cognitive behavioral methods.

Veterans avoid driving because trash on the road produces a huge fear response. If you drive under safe conditions over and over you can extinguish that fear.

Dr. Kristi Salters-Pedneault is the co-investigator in a large scale study that seeks to test the efficacy of RESET, an experimental acceptance-based therapy for PTSD.

“I’m not a veteran, I’ve never served our country. But it feels good to have a set of skills that I know I can use to support veterans,” she said. As a professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University, she researches more effective treatments for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Preliminary results indicate that RESET is highly effective in comparison with established cognitive behavioral methods.

“[RESET] teaches soldiers to be more accepting of symptoms they might have, particularly intrusive thoughts. They’re taught how to have the thoughts without trying to push them away and to recognize those thoughts as just thoughts. They’re not something to fix. It doesn’t mean you are crazy. It’s a natural response and these are just thoughts that can’t hurt you,” she said.

The study is partially funded by the Department of Defense and by the National Center for PTSD.

“I love working with the veterans. It is very meaningful and rewarding work. I’m really grateful I get to continue that,” said Dr. Salters-Pedneault.

The study involves 1,500 veteran volunteers from Fort Drum in New York. The goal is to help veterans deal with intrusive thoughts, one of the most disruptive symptoms of PTSD.

“Thoughts of combat leap into their heads out of the blue,” explained Dr. Salters-Pedneault.

It is difficult to predict who will develop PTSD symptoms. Even after a highly traumatic experience like combat, only about 10% develop PTSD. There are certain risk factors, including previous traumatic experiences.

“I think that’s important. It suggests that cumulative trauma does not have a protective effect. People might say ‘wow, you’ve been through things like this before so you will be stronger.’ But we have evidence of the opposite,” she said. Many veterans try to avoid being exposed to things that cause them to experience PTSD symptoms, a tactic called emotional avoidance.

“The classic example in veterans is that they avoid driving, especially if they did convoy work. That’s because when driving you are at significant risk of IED (improvised explosive device) explosions. In Iraq, trash bags on the side of the road could be a bomb. So they’ll avoid driving because trash on the road produces a huge fear response. If you drive under safe conditions over and over you can extinguish that fear,” she said. Emotional avoidance actually hurts in the long run. Avoiding triggering stimuli can cause symptoms to become worse over time. RESET therapy is focused on acceptance, which can help overcome emotional avoidance.

“If you are exposed to something you are afraid of over and over you will get over that fear,” Dr. Salters-Pedneault explained.

For family members of veterans with PTSD, Dr. Salters-Pedneault believes the most helpful thing they can do is fight the stigma around the condition.

“Make it very clear that they are in support of the person seeking treatment, that it’s okay for them to ask for help, that it’s courageous to ask for help in that context. Really encourage the veteran to seek treatment early, before there are downstream consequences.”

Kristalyn “Kristi” Salters-Pedneault, PhD is an assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She is a member of the Connecticut State Universities chapter of the American Association of University Professors. AAUP is devoted to ensuring higher education’s contribution to the common good, defending academic freedom, and promoting high standards in education. For more on CSU-AAUP visit their blog.

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