Study seeks women with PTSD stemming from sexual trauma

A trial will test three evidence-based counseling therapies to see if one, or more than one in combination, results in better outcomes.

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Up to 40% of women who experience an unwanted sexual contact go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms. Often, in parallel, they seek alcohol as a refuge from fear and sadness.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine is recruiting women with such an experience in the past year for a study of counseling therapies intended to alleviate PTSD and problematic alcohol use.

“We're testing the efficacy of two treatments to address distressing memories and alcohol use after trauma, and comparing those to supportive counseling,” said Michele Bedard-Gilligan, a UW associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “One treatment is PTSD-focused and the other is focused on skills to manage alcohol consumption.”

PTSD is a mix of anxiety and depression, Bedard-Gilligan explained, in which people develop an overactive fear response and an underactive response to things that should feel rewarding or joyful.

“The idea is to look at those relative deficits in individuals and see if that can inform which treatment we pursue first. The PTSD treatment is focused on bringing down fear, and the alcohol treatment is focused on increasing the feeling of reward outside of alcohol,” she said. “Better understanding of these emotional and behavioral processes will help us personalize treatments with the long-term goal of increasing accessibility.”

Bedard-Gilligan and her team seek to enroll 180 individuals ages 18 to 65 who identify as female. Prospective participants will be assessed to meet inclusion criteria of 1) a diagnosis of PTSD that stems from a sexual assault in the past year, and 2) drinking behaviors that are negatively affecting the person.

Participants will receive (free) one of the three forms of psychotherapy, specific to PTSD, alcohol, or standard supportive counseling. After six hour-long sessions spanning three weeks, participants will be randomized to undergo the alternative therapy (PTSD- or alcohol-focused, same duration) or no additional therapy.

All therapy sessions will be conducted via telemedicine for participants’ convenience. Participants will be followed for six months to understand the treatments’ longer-term effectiveness.

Most women who experience sexual trauma do not undergo evidence-based treatments such as the therapies offered in this study, Bedard-Gilligan said.

“The median time it takes trauma survivors to seek treatment is 13 years. You can imagine that, after 13 years, these problems have intensified. So we’re always looking for ways to engage these individuals in treatment earlier. If we can get them earlier, we think we can change a person's trajectory,” she said.

To inquire about enrolling in this trial, email or call 206.685.3617

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Tags:PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)psychiatry & behavioral healthanxiety

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