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Traumatic Memories Play Bigger Role in PTSD Diagnosis than Details of Events

PTSD diagnosis

Traumatic Memories Play Bigger Role in PTSD Diagnosis than Details of Events

King’s College London recently published a study that found personal accounts of childhood trauma were a stronger prediction of a PTSD diagnosis than legal proof that a traumatic event occurred. We know that abuse is underreported for a variety of reasons, but this study highlights another possible explanation: the memory and felt sense of trauma may be more important than the actual details of the event, particularly when it comes to processing trauma in therapy. Part of our comprehensive assessment process includes acknowledging that symptoms, memories, and behaviors are a better indicator of the support teens need than the details of their experiences. We recognize that psychoeducation is only one tool in helping teens heal from trauma.

How Can We More Accurately Assess Risk Factors for PTSD?

The study analysed data from a unique sample in the US Midwest, consisting of 908 people who had been identified as victims of child abuse or neglect on official court records alongside a comparison group of 667 people who had been matched on age, sex, ethnicity and family social class but who had no official records of abuse or neglect. The participants were followed up about twenty years later as young adults and were assessed for psychiatric problems and asked to provide their own accounts of traumatic experiences as children.

We often think that objective and subjective experiences are one of the same, but we have found here that this is not quite true for childhood maltreatment — and that people’s own accounts of their experience are very important for their risk of psychopathology,” explained the study’s authors. “The findings suggest that therapy that focuses on an individual’s memories and thinking patterns around traumatic events are more effective than treatment strategies that focus on reprocessing these events.”

Symptoms of PTSD Are Subjective Depending on Individual Experiences

We have seen firsthand that everyone responds to traumatic events in a different way, based on how they perceived the event, the coping skills available to them, and the support system that they have. Even within a group of people who have experienced the same event, such as a family, some people are able to adapt and integrate their experience into their identity while others struggle with low self-esteem, heightened anxiety, and identity issues. 

In the study, researchers found that people who had experienced traumatic events were twice as likely to experience depression and anxiety by young adulthood and more than five times as likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance use. Often, these consequences of  a PTSD diagnosis are the main reason that they seek professional help down the road, rather than immediately following an event.

How Can Professionals Incorporate This Information Into Trauma Treatment? 

Psychologist Bessel van der Kolk explains, “Confusion and mutism are routine in therapy offices: we fully expect that our patients will become overwhelmed if we keep pressing them for the details of their story.” He discusses the common experience among people with PTSD of problems establishing a chronological timeline, even through evidence-based therapies, like EMDR, that often adds to their distress. 

For that reason, we’ve learned to pendulate our approach to trauma. We don’t avoid confronting the details, but we teach students how to safely dip one toe in the water and then take it out again, thus approaching healing gradually. Our holistic trauma treatment focuses on identifying ways that traumatic experiences have affected various areas of one’s daily functioning–with friends and family, in school, and with responsibilities or personal goals. Our clinical programming involves giving teens the tools to cope with these stressors, through mindfulness, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and recreation. This helps teens work through their emotions and behaviors triggered by their memories, rather than bringing more attention to the event and reinforcing these symptoms.

ViewPoint Center Can Help

ViewPoint Center is a specialty hospital for teens who struggle with depression and other mental health issues. Located near Salt Lake City, Utah, ViewPoint Center a comprehensive therapeutic assessment facility that is licensed and provides 24-hour nursing. Viewpoint offers comprehensive assessments. Post evaluation, treatment plans are established to meet the unique needs of each patient. By the end of the treatment period at ViewPoint, families have a clear understanding of the child’s diagnoses and are offered full guidance on how to move forward and seek proper treatment.

For more information and to find help for your child’s PTSD diagnosis, call 855-290-9682.