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Study: Combat veterans can overcome PTSD in three weeks with intensive treatment

Wendy Rigby
Texas Public Radio

A short but intensive treatment can help combat veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder in as little as three weeks, according to a new study out of UT Health San Antonio.

Dr. Alan Peterson, a clinical psychologist with UT Health San Antonio and the head of the STRONG STAR Consortium, led the clinical trial, which has been hailed as a breakthrough.

“Not only are participants saying ‘I feel better,’ but 75 percent have had a clinically significant reduction in their symptoms as well. About half or so no longer even meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after three weeks,” Peterson said in an interview with TPR’s The Source.

“We also looked at the level of disability and the measure that we had for that really showed there was a very large increase in functioning. So not only were people feeling better and having less symptoms, but they were able to function better in their lives.”

In the clinical trial, 234 active duty troops and veterans from San Antonio and Fort Hood tried a compressed form of prolonged exposure therapy, a standard PTSD treatment in which patients learn to face traumatic memories they typically avoid.

With prolonged exposure therapy, patients retell their trauma stories and complete homework assignments where they engage in activities that trigger their traumatic memories or anxious feelings. The goal is to help them process thoughts about their trauma, calm the anxiety the memories provoke, and regain control of their lives.

Normally, that type of therapy occurs once a week over the course of several months. But participants in the UT Health San Antonio study spent five days a week in individual outpatient therapy for three weeks — while taking time off from work and other responsibilities.

Peterson explained that the trial’s short time window may have helped more patients stick with treatment.

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Carson graduated from the University of Southern Florida in 2011 with a B.A. in English and International Studies, and earned a Master's degree in Journalism from New York University in 2017. Prior to coming to San Antonio, she worked as a reporter for the WMNF 88.5 FM Evening News in 2008. Since then, she's written for Ms. Magazine, Chronogram, Souciant, and Bedford+Bowery, among others. Carson has also done audio work for the podcasts Death, Sex & Money (WNYC) and Memory Motel (Listening Booth Media).