The answer to the high posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurrence in emergency responders may be prevention. A new study, headed by Dr. Rachel White, a clinical psychologist from the Institute of Psychiatry of King’s College London, finds that changing the way we process information can potentially reduce the mental stress following trauma.

Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, avoidance, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and negative thoughts about the world. As the name implies, PTSD usually develops as a result of being exposed to a particular traumatic event. As such, soldiers, social workers, journalists, and other front-liners are often at high risk.

The study insists that, prior to being exposed to trauma, these individuals are presented with an opportunity to train themselves in strategies to help protect them from the ill effects of a traumatic experience, said Dr. Jennifer Wild, an author of the paper.

They call this strategy concrete information processing. Basically, it looks at upsetting events from a practical point of view; that is, “focusing on how a situation is unfolding, what is being experienced, and what the next steps are,” said White in a statement.

She explained that it was different from abstract processing, which is concerned with analyzing why something is happening, its implications, and further asking ‘what if’ questions with no obvious answer.

Fifty respondents were divided into two groups and had their initial moods assessed. Subsequently, they were shown a film with disturbing scenes then had their feelings of stress scored. This process was repeated for six more films.

In scoring the stress, one group had to answer more abstract questions like “why?” and “what if?” while the other had to answer more concrete, direct, and physical questions about practical things in the films. Finally, all participants were given a diary where they had to record intrusive and unwanted thoughts about the films. They kept the diaries for a week.

What the team found was that while all participants’ moods fell after the films, those that were given more abstract questions showed higher levels of stress and upset. Additionally, they also recorded more intrusive memories of the films.

Moving forward, the study provides new and valuable insight on how emergency responders and front-liners can be better trained to handle traumatic situations. But this is just the start, according to Wild.

She added the study was the first to show empirical proof that the way people think about trauma could affect their memories of it.

Further study is now needed in order to confirm these with people who have experienced real-life and determine if his can be applied in groups who regularly experience trauma.

The study could serve as basis for training to improve people’s resilience in the face of expected traumatic experiences. MIMS