Ehring, T., Welboren, R., Morina, N., Wicherts, J.M., Freitag, J., & Emmelkamp, P.M.G (2014). Meta-analysis of psychological treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder in adult survivors of childhood abuse. Clinical Psychology Review, 34, 645-657.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs at a very high frequency among those who experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. As adults these individuals often request mental health services. Previous meta analyses of psychotherapies for PTSD have combined samples of those with PTSD due to childhood maltreatment and those due to trauma in adulthood. This meta analysis by Ehring and colleagues is the first specifically to look at treatment of PTSD in those with childhood abuse. Some argue that PTSD due to childhood abuse is different because of the high level of complex symptoms like emotion regulation problems, impulsivity, depression, dissociation, substance abuse, and others. And so treatments for PTSD related to childhood abuse may require different characteristics and may have different outcomes. Further, there is a long standing debate about whether trauma-focused treatments are appropriate for those with PTSD who have high levels of complex symptoms. There is concern for example that the focus on trauma memories may exacerbate symptoms like dissociation. Previous reviews showed that treatments targeting the trauma memory (i.e., focus on processing the memory and its meaning) had the largest effect on PTSD outcomes. This is likely because of the impact that memory processes (i.e., re-accessing memories, maladaptive attributions of memories) have on the maintenance of the disorder. Would these large treatment effects also be found in PTSD that resulted specifically from childhood abuse? (A note about meta analyses: meta analyses are the best way to synthesize a research area because this method combines the effect sizes from multiple studies into a single effect size. The findings of meta analyses are much more reliable than findings from any single study. See my November 2013 blog). Ehrling and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 16 studies that included over 1200 participants with PTSD due to childhood abuse. Treatments included: trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), non-trauma-focused CBT, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and others. Psychological interventions were effective for PTSD related to childhood abuse, and the effects were large for both PTSD symptom severity and for other symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, dissociation). Psychological interventions were more effective that control conditions (i.e., wait lists or treatments as usual), and these effects were moderate. Effects remained large or moderate well into post-treatment follow-ups. Trauma focused treatments were more effective than non-trauma-focused treatments, and individual interventions were more effective than group-based interventions.
Psychological interventions for PTSD in adults who experienced childhood abuse are effective in reducing symptom severity with moderate to large effects. Other symptoms like anxiety, depression, and dissociation also showed large positive changes in these individuals. Research shows that trauma-focused treatments are under-used in routine practice. This may be due to the concern that trauma-focused treatments may not be safe in some individuals with complex symptoms. Trauma-focused treatments may lead to higher effects than non-trauma focused treatments, indicating the potential importance of processing the trauma memory.