Starting exposure therapy for PTSD with a clinician is a bit like starting with a personal trainer in the gym or learning a new skill: repetition is key. The more service members or veterans talk about their trauma, the more the clinician can help that person synch their memories, reframe their narrative to deal with their emotions, and move towards healing.
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Here’s how we would start a session of prolonged exposure is I would work with the veteran to find an area of focus. Because I think a lot of times veterans come in, they’re suffering, they know something is not right. And I think the power often of a first session of prolonged exposure is that I, as a clinician, somebody with training and credibility in this area, in kind of providing the rationale for how trauma affects people, how that correlates with the problems that you might come and see a mental health professional for, like poor sleep, being irritated, being angry, having nightmares, things like that. But I’m also pairing with like “this is the solution; this is the remedy.” And I think the process of verbally going through it with me, it may seem really difficult and confusing at first, but you’ll find that the more we kind of go through it, it’s just like practicing any other new skill. It’s just like personal training in the gym. That you will find that you become better at it. The memories synch together a little better and it just kind of flows a little easier after a few sessions, you know, you’ll have some relief.
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Brian Klassen, Ph.D., is the Associate Clinical Director for The Road Home Program: The National Center of Excellence for Veterans and Their Families at Rush University in Chicago, Illinois. Brian spent his formative years training at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, completing rotations in chronic pain management, residential substance use disorder treatment, and PTSD. Brian has special expertise in providing front-line treatments for PTSD, including Prolonged Exposure and Cognitive Processing Therapy.