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Institute Inbrief - 17/02/2016


Welcome to Edition 241 of Institute Inbrief! If you were to have a traumatised client, which type of therapy would you choose to treat them? On what would you base your decision? In this article, we explore a range of CBT interventions used to help clients deal with trauma.

Also in this edition:
  • Latest news and updates
  • Articles and CPD information
  • Wellness tips
  • Social media review
Enjoy your reading!


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CBT Interventions for Trauma

If you were to have a traumatised client, which type of therapy would you choose to treat them? On what would you base your decision? Research tells us that there is choice.

Psychotherapeutic interventions for PTSD have significant empirical support. One meta-analysis of 26 studies (1535 subjects) employing different psychotherapeutic approaches found that four out of five clients (79 percent) completed treatment. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the completers no longer met criteria for PTSD. In a further meta-analysis of 17 studies (690 subjects), psychotherapeutic treatment was found to be effective, with symptomology significantly decreased (Sherman, 1998, in Knauss & Schofield, 2008). Whichever therapy is selected, traumatised clients are severely distressed; thus, the therapist must have highly developed relational and supportive skills in addition to knowledge about treatment methods that will be appropriate and effective. The job of the professional working with such clients is to contain and deal with the trauma. A solid therapeutic alliance and positive client expectations towards the treatment are positively associated with treatment outcome (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a).

While the therapy-types on offer to treat PTSD abound, three different types of psychotherapeutic approaches come up again and again in the literature as workable and appropriate for trauma. These are: cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement de-sensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), and psychodynamic psychotherapy. In this article, we explore the use the CBT and CBT-related therapies to treat trauma.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for trauma

The most widely studied therapy of all, CBT, has demonstrated efficacy (in its multitudinous forms) as a treatment for PTSD. As trauma-focused cognitive-behavioural therapy (TFCBT), its effectiveness has been reported in several reviews and meta-analyses (American Psychiatric Association, 2004; Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a; Bisson & Andrew, 2007; Schnyder, 2005). Trauma-focussed therapy involves direct engagement with the traumatic memory. Although it often includes psychoeducation and symptom management strategies (notably arousal reduction), the “variations on a theme” are predominantly characterised by different emphases on exposure to traumatic memories and/or cognitive restructuring. These psychological interventions are short-term and structured; the techniques include: exposure therapy/prolonged exposure (PE), systematic de-sensitisation, cognitive processing therapy (CPT), cognitive therapy, narrative exposure therapy (NET), stress inoculation therapy (SIT), a suite of anxiety management techniques (including relaxation training, distraction techniques, and positive self-talk) and EMDR (which we will include under its own subheading). All of them aim to address the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural sequelae of exposure to traumatic events.

The recent literature review of the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health identified 29 studies comparing TFCBT to waitlist or control conditions, and a further 38 studies which compared TFCBT to treatment as usual or another intervention. Six studies compared EMDR to waitlist controls and a further 9 studies compared EMDR to treatment as usual or another intervention (see Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a).

We can summarise the wide literature base on CBT’s effectiveness through these simple remarks:

Each of the above types of trauma-focussed therapies has shown significant positive treatment effects for adults with PTSD, with cognitive behaviour therapy that incorporates imaginal and in vivo exposure as well as cognitive restructuring having received the most attention.

Multiple trials indicate that trauma-focussed therapies result in greater reduction in PTSD symptoms than supportive counselling, thereby providing solid evidence that it is a relatively stronger intervention than generic psychotherapeutic support (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a).

So what, exactly, are CBT-based, trauma-focussed therapies trying to do?

Goals of CBT-based therapies

CBT helps clients to weaken the connections between troublesome thoughts and situations and the clients’ habitual reactions to them. Cognitive therapies teach clients how certain thinking patterns may be the cause of their difficulties by giving them a distorted picture or making them feel anxious, depressed, or angry. Traumatic experiences typically impede emotional processes because they conflict with pre-existing conceptual schemas. Cognitive dissonance occurs because clients cannot reconcile thoughts, memories, and images of the trauma with their current meaning structures; the result is severe distress. Clients need to match new information with inner models based on older information until they agree, in a psychological drive for completion.

Yet in the acute phase of the trauma, cognitive accord is sorely lacking. Trauma survivors typically fluctuate between hyperarousal and inhibition. Attempting to comprehend and integrate the traumatic experience, the survivor normally replays the event that has been stored in active memory. Each replay, however, distresses the traumatised person, who may inhibit thought processes in an attempt to modulate the active processing of the traumatic information. When this inhibition is observed, it gives the sense that the client has disengaged from processing the traumatic memory. Some client-survivors, therefore, display withdrawn and avoidant behaviours until the traumatic thoughts can no longer be inhibited, and become intrusive, expressed as hyperarousal symptoms of flashbacks (when awake) and nightmares (when asleep). The observed result is a swinging between denial/numbness and intrusion/hyperarousal. The psychological completion can be achieved when the client re-appraises the event and revises the cognitive schemas previously held, coming to hold a point of tension between the two (Dass-Brailsford, 2007). Accordingly, CBT techniques used in trauma treatment tend to focus on the following:
  • Learning skills for coping with anxiety (such as breath retraining or biofeedback)
  • Using cognitive restructuring to change negative thoughts
  • Managing anger
  • Preparing for stress reactions (stress inoculation)
  • Handling future trauma symptoms
  • Addressing relapse prevention and other substance abuse issues
  • Communicating and relating effectively with people (interpersonal skills)
  • Addressing thought distortions that usually follow exposure to trauma
  • Relaxation training and guided imagery (Dass-Brailsford, 2007)
Here are some snapshot views of the various trauma-focused therapies based on CBT.

Exposure therapy/prolonged exposure

In exposure therapy, long held to be an effective treatment for a range of anxiety disorders, clients are encouraged to confront the fear-inducing memory at varying levels, either imaginally or in vivo. Therapists doing exposure therapy (also called prolonged exposure) work with the notion of habituation, which posits that if people can be kept in contact with the anxiety-provoking stimulus long enough, their anxiety around it will inevitably decrease. Thus, gradually and repeatedly, clients are guided through a vivid and specific recall of traumatic events until, in the safe, controlled context of the therapy rooms, clients’ emotional reactions decrease. This can happen with an exposure session (in-session habituation) or via a series of sessions (between-session habituation). Exposure therapy began with early desensitisation sessions with war veterans and developed into the prolonged exposure that is the contemporary cornerstone of PTSD treatment.

Central to exposure therapies is the notion of grading the exposure (typically using a hierarchy) to expose the client to both traumatic memories and also avoided situations and activities related to the trauma. The client confronts ever-more-threatening situations, repeating and prolonging the exposure until it evokes only minimal anxiety (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a; Dass-Brailsford, 2007).

In some cases the practitioner may use flooding, a related technique which encourages clients to confront all their memories or reminders of trauma at once. This technique should only be offered if the client is given a robust opportunity to refuse treatment, as the technique is not well-tolerated by some populations, notably veterans with chronic combat-related PTSD. In one study most of the veterans dropped out rather than continue the treatment (Foa, Keane, & Friedman, 2000). Empirical studies demonstrate, however, that exposure therapy is effective with other groups, such as rape survivors (Foa et al, 2002).

PE up close

PE is typically conducted in 9 to 12 sessions lasting 90 minutes each. It has been used to treat PTSD after sexual assault, combat, childhood abuse and sexual abuse, motor vehicle accidents, and natural disasters (Chard & Gilman, 2005). While individual sessions are more common, group PE has also been found to be effective. The therapist first educates the client about PTSD and the treatment rationale through psychoeducation, then moves into a phase of repeatedly asking the client to describe the traumatic event as if it were occurring. During, say, 45 to 60 minutes of exposure, the therapist frequently asks the client to rate his or her distress, thus identifying “hot spots” in the account to which they will return. At this stage, the therapist is not necessarily challenging cognitive distortions (e.g., “No one can be trusted”).

Through the continuing exposure, the client habituates to the pathological “fear network”, coming to enhance self-control and personal competence and decreasing generalisation of fear to non-trauma stimuli. Thus, a returned veteran who once had to disembark on a beach and walk toward combat through land-mine-studded fields may have been up until the PE re-traumatised by a walk in the park with the family. Through in vivo exposure, such clients can face associations between environmental cues and their trauma, learning to modify the fears associated with the cues. The result is improved personal and social functioning (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a; Chard & Gilman, 2005).

PE session by session

A set of 9 to 12 PE sessions might be conducted as shown below.


1          Education
            Treatment rationale
            Review of PTSD symptom response
            Introduce breathing retraining
2          Review handouts of common reactions to trauma
            Introduce Subjective Units of Distress*
            Create fear hierarchy for in vivo exposures
3          Provide rationale for imaginal exposure
            Conduct imaginal exposure
            Assign in vivo exposure homework
4-8      Conduct imaginal exposure
            Discuss in vivo exposures
9-12    Conduct imaginal exposure
            Suggest continued in vivo exercises

*Measurements used to describe an individual's level of suffering or grief associated with painful memories (Jonas: Mosby's Dictionary of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (c) 2005, Elsevier)

Source: Foa & Rothbaum, 1998.

Systematic de-sensitisation

This therapeutic approach, developed by Wolpe (1958, in Dass-Brailsford, 2007), works well for clients who prefer gradual recall rather than immediate total recall of traumatic memories. In systematic desensitisation, clients are supported through deep muscle relaxation techniques and diaphragmatic breathing, which are taught before treatment is administered and used whenever a client’s anxiety increases. Early tasks in this approach centre on establishing a hierarchy of fear-inducing stimuli and gaining competence in using the relaxation techniques to overcome the situations in the hierarchy. Clients begin by recalling the least upsetting situation, the least distressing aspects of the traumatic experience. If the client has a negative reaction, the therapist induces relaxation. They gradually return to the hierarchy, ascending to the next (slightly more) distressing stimulus. Thus clients systematically work to overcome and integrate their fears (Dass-Brailsford, 2007).

Cognitive processing therapy

A particular form of cognitive therapy refined specifically for the treatment of PTSD, cognitive processing therapy was created originally to treat trauma and related symptoms in rape survivors. Thus it first appeared as a 12-session manualised treatment that systematically addressed key posttraumatic themes, including safety, trust, power and control, self-esteem, and intimacy. Sessions can be group, individual, or combined, depending on client needs and clinic resources. The length of the program can go up to 17 weeks in some cases of work with survivors of domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and war veterans, with sessions being added/deleted/adapted to the needs of the particular population being addressed. CPT is also useful for PTSD from motor vehicle accidents (Chard & Gilman, 2005).

CPT treatment, based on information processing theory, helps the person to: (1) identify unhelpful thoughts and beliefs (“stuck points”) about self, others, and the world; (2) challenge them; and (3) replace them with rational alternatives in an adaptation of standard cognitive therapy approaches. The stuck points, or distortions, are sometimes called “rules”; they are gradually replaced with more adaptive, healthier beliefs. Because CPT systematically identifies key themes and issues associated with reactions to the trauma, it is especially suitable for addressing the complex psychiatric sequelae found in the PTSD of returned troops from recent military conflicts. It has a smaller exposure component than imaginal exposure therapy (clients merely write an account of the experience), which makes it more appealing to veterans and practitioners looking for alternatives to purely exposure-focussed treatments.

Traumatised individuals typically feel out of control or hopeless. Thus the above-mentioned focal themes of safety, trust, control, self-esteem, and intimacy also have the advantage of helping to address associated problems such as depression, guilt, and anger. Modules on assertiveness, communication, and social support can also be added (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a; Chard & Gilman, 2005).

CPT session by session

Twelve CPT sessions might be conducted as shown below.


1          Education
            Review of symptoms
            Introduce “stuck points”/rules
            Write Impact of Event Statement (IES)
2          Review IES
            Identify stuck points
            Introduce A-B-C sheets (from the ABC paradigm*)
3          Review A-B-C sheets
            Assign writing of traumatic account
4          Read traumatic account
            Identify stuck points
            Rewrite the account
5          Read rewritten account
            Identify stuck points
            Introduce worksheet on challenging questions
            Assign writing of next-most-traumatic incident/work through questions
6          Review challenging questions work
            Assign review of faulty thinking patterns work
7          Review faulty thinking patterns work
            Assign safety module and challenging beliefs worksheets on safety
8          Review challenging beliefs worksheets on safety
            Assign module on trust
9          Review challenging belief worksheets on trust
            Assign module on power/control
10       Review challenging beliefs worksheet on power/control
            Assign module on esteem
11       Review challenging beliefs worksheets on esteem
            Assign module on intimacy
            Rewrite IES
12       Review challenging beliefs worksheet on intimacy
            Read both impact statements
            Address remaining areas of concern

*From Albert Ellis’ Rational-Emotive Therapy (the forerunner of CBT), the A stands for Activating Event, the B is for Beliefs (often irrational), C is for the emotional consequences of A and B. Later, Ellis added D, for Disputing irrational beliefs, and E, for Effects – cognitive and emotional – of revised beliefs (Dewey, R., 2007. The A-B-C-D-E Mnemonic, retrieved from:

Source: Resnick, & Schnicke, 1993.

Cognitive therapy

Needing a treatment for depression in the 1970s, Aaron Beck introduced cognitive therapy; Albert Ellis’ Rational-Emotive Therapy (later Rational-Emotive Behavioural Therapy) and other similar therapies were in their hey-day at the time. Anxiety disorders, some psychoses and personality disorders, and other emotional conditions have been successfully treated with cognitive therapy since then. In treating PTSD, cognitive therapy helps clients to identify, challenge, and modify any biased or distorted thoughts or memories of the traumatic experience, as well as any later-developing maladaptive or limiting beliefs they may hold about themselves and the world (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a). Note that cognitive therapy does not emphasise exposure processes, which may limit its effectiveness with some populations, yet appeal more to others, such as veterans.

Narrative exposure therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy is adapted from both mainstream exposure approaches and testimony therapy, which was first used with survivors of torture and civilian casualties of war. Standardised and short-term, NET was originally developed for the dual purposes of treating survivors and documenting human rights violations. The intervention asks clients to construct a narrative of their life, from the early years to the present, detailing the traumatic event(s) and elaborating on related thoughts and emotions. NET proponents posit that the therapy works in two ways: (1) promoting habituation to traumatic memories through exposure and (2) reconstructing the individual’s autobiographic memory (Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health, 2013a).

Stress Inoculation Therapy (SIT)

Originally developed by Meichenbaum (1994) for anxious clients, SIT is a commonly used anxiety management treatment which incorporates psycho-education and skill-building techniques such as relaxation, thought stopping, breath retraining, problem-solving, role-playing, covert modelling, and guided self-dialogue, and seems to be particularly effective in relieving the fear, anxiety, and depressive symptoms associated with traumatic experiences (Chard & Gilman, 2005). SIT has yielded encouraging results when used with female rape victims. It is also thought to be most helpful with PTSD related to physical assault and motor vehicle accidents (Chard & Gilman, 2005). In a well-controlled study combining SIT with prolonged imaginal exposure and supportive counselling, it was found to significantly reduce symptoms (Foa, Rothbaum, Riggs, & Murdock, 1991).

Anxiety management

Clients diagnosed with PTSD may not know how to manage anxiety when confronted with anxiety-provoking situations related to their traumatic experience. Thus anxiety management works to develop skills in this area through specific anxiety-reduction techniques such as relaxation training, positive self-talk, and distraction techniques. Like SIT, anxiety management has been successfully used to treat PTSD in rape survivors (Foa et al, 1991).

This article was adapted from Mental Health Academy’s upcoming professional development course, “Working with Trauma”.


APA (American Psychiatric Association). (2004). Practice guideline for the treatment of patients with acute stress disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Retrieved on 11 August, 2015, from: hyperlink.
Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health. (2013a). Australian Guidelines for the Treatment of Acute Stress Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. ACPMH, Melbourne, Victoria.
Bisson, J., & Andrew, M. (2007). Psychological treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Review). Cochrane database of Systematic Reviews, 3. Art. No: CD003388. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003388.pub3.
Chard, K.M., & Gilman, R. (2005). Counseling trauma victims: 4 brief therapies meet the test. Current Psychiatry, Vol 4, No 8, August, 2005. Retrieved on 28 July, 2015, from: hyperlink.
Dass-Brailsford. (20007). Models of trauma treatment. Retrieved on 4 August, 2015, from: hyperlink.
Foa, E.B., Keane, T.M., & Friedman, J.J. (2000). Effective treatments for PTSD: Practice guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. New York: Guilford.
Foa, E.B., & Rothbaum, B.O. (1998). Treating the trauma of rape: Cognitive behavioural therapy for PTSD. New York: Guilford Press.
Foa, E.B., Rothbaum, B.O., Riggs, D.S., & Murdock, T.B. (1991). Treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder in rape victims: A comparison between cognitive-behavioural procedures and counselling. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, Vol 59, No 5, 715-723.
Foa, E.B., Zoellner, L.A., Feeny, N.C., Hembree, E.A., & Alvarez-Conrad, J. (2002). Does imaginal exposure exacerbate PTSD symptoms? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 70, No 4, 1022-1028.
Knauss, C., & Schofield, M.J. (2009). A resource for counsellors and psychotherapists working with clients suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Melbourne: PACFA (Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia).
Meichenbaum, D. (1994). A clinical handbook/practical therapist manual for assessing and treating adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Waterloo, ON: Institute Press.
Resnick, P.A., & Schnicke, M.K. (1993). Cognitive processing therapy for rape victims: A treatment manual. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Schnyder, U. (2005). Why new psychotherapies for posttraumatic stress disorder? Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, Vol 74, 199-201.
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Get Going with Goal-setting

How are you going on your New Year’s resolutions? If you are like an estimated 93 percent of the population, you have abandoned those fine aspirations generated so earnestly in December. Despair not, however; in this article we look at why you should revive your resolutions, turning them into goals. We identify the areas of life where that would be helpful and offer an exercise you can do to bring your goals into sharper focus, giving you greater clarity of purpose.

Why set goals?

You may ask, why bother to set goals – meaning, written goals? Self-improvement speaker Brian Tracy notes that only 3 percent of adults have written goals, but “this 3 percent earn more than all of the other 97 percent put together”. Tracy explains that a clear goal keeps you from being side-tracked by distractions. You are here on this planet for the duration. What will you do with the time? Who will you become? What will your legacy be? Knowing these answers will help you attract and generate that which will enrich and enliven your days, bringing satisfaction, fulfilment, and joy. Your outer life will align with your inner values and you will be living in greater wholeness.

Being forced to get clear enough on what you want in order to write it down focuses the way you go about gathering information and directs your actions, which in turn helps you to organise your time and resources in order to maximise desired outcomes. Setting lifetime goals generates the long-term vision for your life, and when you break down the big, whole-of-life goals into smaller units – ones that you can accomplish next month/next week/tomorrow – your motivation is maintained and increased. Clearly defined, measurable goals allow you to see your progress, taking pride in your achievements and giving impetus to effort that otherwise might seem like pointless toil. As you notch up different “goals met” on your belt of accomplishments, your competence, sense of mastery, and self-esteem go up as well.

Raising the odds by 1000 percent

Goal-setting experts claim that the mere act of writing one’s goals, making plans for accomplishing them, and then working on them daily, increases by 1000 percent (that is, ten times) the likelihood of achieving them. Written goals do not guarantee success, but they vastly increase the probability of accomplishing your aims. Writing involves your mind/brain, eyes, and hands, sending a message to your subconscious mind: “This is important; go gather up the energy to manifest this.” The subconscious mind then goes to work 24/7 to bring your goal into reality.

Goals for each realm of life

Each goal strand should be set on several levels: from lifetime goals – the broad, whole-of-life, “big picture” aims – all the way down to the tasks you commit to accomplishing from your daily list. All levels are important, but today we look at the broad, lifetime goals, as these relate most closely to your long-term vision. You should have goal(s) for each area of your life, as lifegoals give you the holistic perspective that shapes all other aspects of your goal-setting.

How you carve up the various life realms is up to you, but here are two possibilities. The Wheel of Balance. Asteron Life recently introduced the “Wheel of Balance”, an ‘interactive self-assessment tool’ asks users to reflect on how fully they are engaging with each of eight areas: fun, relationships, finance, career/business, family, creativity, health/self-care, spirituality/personal growth. Mind Tools’ scheme includes the eight above and adds in the areas of service/contribution, and education. Try it out!

Generating goals: An exercise in two parts

Here is a goal-setting challenge.

Part One: Generate and select. Set a timer for five minutes and push yourself to come up with a goal or goals for each of the above areas (don’t fret about how you will achieve these; now is about what you will go for). Write between 10 and 15 goals. Then select the one goal that, if you were suddenly granted the ability to completely achieve this goal within 24 hours, would have the greatest positive impact on your life. Which goal, fully achieved, would most greatly assist your ability to achieve your other goals? This goal becomes your “Major Definite Purpose” and the focal point of future activities.

Part Two: Major Definite Purpose Mindstorming. Now take another sheet of paper and write out your Major Definite Purpose in the form of a question. For example, if your Major Definite Purpose goal is to become a life coach with a fulltime private practice, you might write, “How can I become a fully self-employed life coach by (date)?” Then you discipline yourself to generate 20 (yes, 20!) answers to your question, even if some seem weird or impractical. The first few will be easy, the next bunch you will get with some effort, and some of the last ones may require persistence. This sort of exercise unleashes a huge amount of creativity.

Don’t just stick this great work away in a drawer. Post it where you can see it frequently to remind yourself where you are headed. You will love the sense of mastery, wholeness, and satisfaction that arises as your goals come to fruition – totally apart from making you part of the 3 percent!

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance Blog. AIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.

Prevalence, Incidence, and Risk Factors for ASD and PTSD

The answer to how many people in a given population have AST or PTSD is not straightforward, as it should be considered in the context of how many potentially traumatic events (PTEs) people are exposed to in the general community. Countries in prolonged conflict or who are prone to natural disasters (flooding or hurricanes, for example) may have higher exposure rates to potentially traumatic events and thus a higher per-capita ratio of PTSD in the general population than countries with fewer PTEs occurring. The ratio of PTSD-to-PTE may not be higher, however, than countries with a lower incidence of PTSD per capita, but who have a correspondingly lower exposure to PTEs.

Click here to continue reading this article.

MBCT: A Look at the Mechanisms of Action

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a psychological therapy designed to help prevent the relapse of depression, especially for those individuals who have Major Depressive Disorder (the principal type of depressive disorder defined by the DSM-5). MBCT employs traditional CBT methods and adds in mindfulness and mindfulness meditation strategies. In this article, we explore the mechanisms behind MBCT’s effectiveness in helping prevent relapse of depression.

Click here to continue reading this article.

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The Gut-Brain Connection

What if I offered you a holiday which either tasted good or during which you would look and feel good? Which would you choose? Would you rather eat and drink whatever you like from that laden holiday buffet or be in a good mood – and feel healthy – while you stand around it? The question is not as silly as it sounds. New discoveries in neuroscience are helping health researchers understand how the gut-brain connection works to keep you healthy – or make you sick.

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