Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be thought of as a memory disorder. Once a traumatic event has happened to a person, the mind replays the event over and over again. This replaying, or rehearsal, makes the event loom larger and larger and makes the memory more and more difficult to disengage.

One type of approach to treating PTSD has been to prevent this memory process as soon as possible so that it does not become full-blown PTSD. Though earlier attempts have not done so well with this logic, (some even found that the opposite can result, with memories becoming more entrenched), a new study points to a very promising method of treating PTSD by helping the person interrupt the traumatic videotape playing in their heads and take charge of the process of creating the memory of the event before it takes charge of them.

Replaying, or rehearsing, the trauma makes the event loom larger and larger and makes the memory more and more difficult to disengage.

"In so many people, what happens immediately after a traumatic event can make things worse or better," said study author Barbara Rothbaum. "Right now, there are no accepted interventions delivered in the immediate aftermath of trauma." And that’s where her study comes in.

Rothbaum and her colleagues at Emory University School of Medicine worked with a group of people who had been through traumatic experiences like rape, car crashes, or assault. The therapists treated the patients using a form of exposure therapy in three one-hour sessions. The participants were asked to recount their traumatic experiences, which were recorded for them to listen back to daily. They were also taught ways to process the events and to reduce their stress responses with breathing exercises. Participants in the experimental group received the intervention within 12 hours of the traumatic event; those in the control group were only interviewed after the event, but did not receive the treatment.

In the following months, participants in the treatment group had significantly less PTSD and depression than the control group. This was true for the entire length of the study, which followed the participants for 12 weeks. It’s unclear how the treatment will continue to help patients over the long term, and this is something that will need to be addressed in follow-up studies, before the intervention is introduced in hospitals and other treatment centers.

"If we know what to do, then we can train emergency workers to intervene with patients on a large scale," said Rothbaum. "In addition to being implemented in the emergency room, it can help on the battlefield, in natural disasters, or after criminal assaults." The treatment may not help every person who experiences a traumatic event, but it does suggest an effective method for interrupting the PTSD cycle early on, which until now had not existed.

The study was carried out by researchers at Emory University and published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.