How to Prevent Trauma From Becoming PTSD

How to Prevent Trauma From Becoming PTSD

Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA

Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA

Member Since 2010

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anxiety and related disorders. Dr. Kissen is the author of the Panic Workbook for Teens, Rewire Your Anxious Brains for Teens: Using CBT, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness to Help You End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry (The Instant Help Solutions Series) and the soon to be released Break Free from Intrusive Thoughts: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managing Fear and Finding Peace. Dr. Kissen also has a special interest in the principles of mindfulness and their application for anxiety disorders. Dr. Kissen has presented her research on CBT and mindfulness-based treatments for anxiety and related disorders at regional and national conferences. Dr. Kissen is the Co-Chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Public Education Committee. Dr. Kissen was the recipient of the 2020 Gratitude for Giving Spirit Award  and the 2018 Anxiety Depression Association of America Member of Distinction Award. 

Dr. Kissen often serves as a media psychologist and is available for press inquiries and strives to further the dissemination of empirically supported treatment (EST) information by offering user friendly quotes and simple to understand, practical tips and solutions to help mental health consumers move past stress and anxiety.

Dr. Kissen and ADAA

"I was lucky enough to do my early practicums under the leadership and guidance of Dr. Karen Cassiday who is now president of ADAA. I learned from Dr. Cassiday that time spent with ADAA is one of the best professional investments that I could make. Through continuing education, professional connections and additional contact with mental health consumers, ADAA is truly my professional home. I have always had a passion for enhancing dissemination of empirically supported treatment protocols to mental health consumers. The public education committee offers a wonderful opportunity to create innovative programming to reach mental health consumers where they are, not just in the treatment room. I hope the future of mental health care delivery will allow for many more opportunities to expand access to mental health care through public education initiatives such as those spearheaded at ADAA."

How to Prevent Trauma From Becoming PTSD

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Debra Kissen Trauma and PTSD

This blog post is reprinted with permission from ADAA member Debra Kissen, PhD's website.

Unfortunately, there is no way to expedite the process of healing from trauma. The human condition is simply hard and comes jam-packed with suffering. The good news is that the intensity of emotional pain always reduces with time. This is not just a trite sentiment, as there are neurological studies that have found the ways the brain works to heal emotional wounds. The brain is geared for survival and is always looking for new threats and information, which means old experiences eventually route to the back of the line to direct your attentional resources to what is new and potentially important. My clients often respond to this concept by stating: “This can’t be true, because I have been in the same emotional pain for so long, and my traumatic event was years and years ago.”  I explain to my patients that the natural response to emotional pain is avoidance behaviors: trying not to have it, ignoring it, or running from it. However, this keeps the emotional pain active and at the front of the mind. Thus, the brain continues to think there is an active threat and these old experiences do not travel to the back of the line. The brain thinks, “If there is not a threat, why are they trying so hard to not think or feel something?” By desperately trying not to have emotional pain, we inevitably bring upon longer-term suffering.

Studies have shown a correlation with the development of PTSD and avoidance behaviors. In other words, the more one tries not to think about a traumatic event, resists revisiting a traumatic place, and avoids contact with any potential triggers of the traumatic event, the more likely one is to develop PTSD.

The main difference between PTSD and the experience of trauma is important to note. A traumatic event is time-based, while PTSD is a longer-term condition where one continues to have flashbacks and re-experiencing the traumatic event. In addition, to meet criteria for PTSD there must be a high level of ongoing distress and life impairment.

Studies have compared individuals who have experienced the same traumatic event such as living through a weather-related disaster or terrorist attack. A review of the literature on resiliency and recovery following traumatic events identified the following as protective factors for developing PTSD, meaning those who engaged in these did not endure longer-term suffering:

  • Continuous contact with and support from important people in your life
  • Disclosing the trauma to loved ones
  • Identifying as a survivor as opposed to a victim
  • Use of positive emotion and laughter
  • Finding positive meaning in the trauma
  • Helping others in their healing process
  • Holding the belief that you can manage your feelings and cope

No one can prevent the pain and suffering tied to the human experience, it is inescapable. We will all experience losses of immense proportions. What we can prevent, however, is suffering on top of pain. I sometimes describe this to my patients at stubbing your toe and then being so frustrated that you stubbed your toe that you then punch yourself in the face.

You can allow yourself to just have pain and not suffering on top of pain by opening yourself up to the thoughts, feelings and sensations associated with loss and trauma. Now this does not mean  to flood yourself, or artificially bring up memories and triggers randomly throughout your day. Instead, when these distressing thoughts and feelings do arise, welcome them.  I know the concept of welcoming pain is a tricky one to grasp. After all, who wants to welcome pain? But pain is there for a reason. The pain we feel when touching a hot stove is there to teach us that fire is dangerous to the skin. The pain we experience after living through a trauma is there to guide us in the future and to see what lessons there are to learn that may protect us from future loss.

One exercise you can practice is to set a timer for five minutes each day. In these five minutes, you are to open up to any thoughts, sensations, or feelings that are associated with the trauma. I describe this to my patients as setting “office hours,” where all thoughts, feelings, sensations and images are welcome. For the rest of the day, when painful internal experiences arise, you can acknowledge the thoughts, feelings or images and gently remind them that they can come back during office hours, but at the current moment there are other tasks you need to available for.


Agaibi, C.E., & Wilson, J.P. (2005). Trauma, PTSD, and resilience: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse, 6, 195-216.

Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?. American psychologist, 59(1), 20.

 

Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA

Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA

Member Since 2010

Dr. Debra Kissen is CEO of Light On Anxiety CBT Treatment Center. Dr. Kissen specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for anxiety and related disorders. Dr. Kissen is the author of the Panic Workbook for Teens, Rewire Your Anxious Brains for Teens: Using CBT, Neuroscience, and Mindfulness to Help You End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry (The Instant Help Solutions Series) and the soon to be released Break Free from Intrusive Thoughts: An Evidence-Based Guide for Managing Fear and Finding Peace. Dr. Kissen also has a special interest in the principles of mindfulness and their application for anxiety disorders. Dr. Kissen has presented her research on CBT and mindfulness-based treatments for anxiety and related disorders at regional and national conferences. Dr. Kissen is the Co-Chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Public Education Committee. Dr. Kissen was the recipient of the 2020 Gratitude for Giving Spirit Award  and the 2018 Anxiety Depression Association of America Member of Distinction Award. 

Dr. Kissen often serves as a media psychologist and is available for press inquiries and strives to further the dissemination of empirically supported treatment (EST) information by offering user friendly quotes and simple to understand, practical tips and solutions to help mental health consumers move past stress and anxiety.

Dr. Kissen and ADAA

"I was lucky enough to do my early practicums under the leadership and guidance of Dr. Karen Cassiday who is now president of ADAA. I learned from Dr. Cassiday that time spent with ADAA is one of the best professional investments that I could make. Through continuing education, professional connections and additional contact with mental health consumers, ADAA is truly my professional home. I have always had a passion for enhancing dissemination of empirically supported treatment protocols to mental health consumers. The public education committee offers a wonderful opportunity to create innovative programming to reach mental health consumers where they are, not just in the treatment room. I hope the future of mental health care delivery will allow for many more opportunities to expand access to mental health care through public education initiatives such as those spearheaded at ADAA."

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