Experiencing a traumatic event is part of life for many people. According to the US Department for Veteran’s Affairs, about 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives, defined as a shocking or scary event that you witness or that happens to you causing fear or a sense of powerlessness. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can occur as a result of experiencing trauma and is characterized by flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable or repeated thoughts about the event.
But while over half of us experience some type of trauma in our life, a much smaller percentage develop PTSD as a result. The National Center on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder lists this frequency based on the US population:
- About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will have PTSD at some point in their lives.
- About 8 million adults have PTSD during a given year, a small portion of those who have experienced trauma.
- About 10 of every 100 (or 10%) of women develop PTSD sometime in their lives compared with about 4 of every 100 (or 4%) of men.
Other factors may influence the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress, you’re more likely to develop PTSD if you:
- Were directly exposed to the trauma as a victim or a witness
- Were seriously hurt during the event or believed you or a family member were in danger
- Felt helpless during the trauma and were not able to help yourself or a loved one
- Had an earlier life-threatening event or trauma, such as being abused as a child
- Have another mental health problem
- Have little support from family and friends
- Have had recent, stressful life changes
- Drink a lot of alcohol
But, new treatments for this disorder are in development every day. A recent study from Tel Aviv University, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, uses an alternative PTSD treatment with a computer. Computer-based treatments have been explored before, but this study used a new method called “attention control therapy” which helps subjects shift their focus from a frightening image. The treatment theory is that PTSD is characterized by a miscalculation of attention with a focus on anxiety and hyper vigilance – humans affected by PTSD lose the normal ability to figure out what may be dangerous about a situation and respond appropriately, for those with PTSD non-threatening events can be misinterpreted as threatening.
This attention control computer training helps to neutralize the extreme responses featured in PTSD by forcing users to redirect their attention to another task, after seeing a threatening image. Researchers had former military members diagnosed with PTSD look at negative and neutral images and then complete simple tasks. Researchers theorize that by completing the task repeatedly, the differences between the scary image and the neutral image diminish – the participants who underwent the treatment showed significantly diminished PTSD symptoms after completing the therapy.
Researchers are now interested in finding ways to provide this treatment digitally, so while still prescribed under a doctor’s care, the treatment area can be opened to serve a wider range of patients.