Single session debriefing sessions? Helpful or harmful? 


I write this from Uganda having just completed a Community of Practice conference hosted by the Ugandan Bible Society. This community of practice is for bible-based trauma healing facilitators and local mental and public health experts. I presented on an update to PTSD causes, effects, and treatment. We looked at the value of Scripture engagement around the topics of trauma, loss, and recovery as well as how it fits into the larger picture of trauma counseling. 

Much of what we clinicians know and do for treatment for PTSD symptoms is based on partial research but a significant dose of “clinical judgment.” What is that? Well, it is treatment models that may have some empirical support but mostly formed over long-held assumptions in the field. One of those assumptions is that we may be able to prevent PTSD if we provide group or individual debriefing sessions soon after a traumatic experience. These debriefing sessions have been offered for decades to first responders, humanitarians, and missionaries after exposure to traumatic and tragic events. In recent years we have seen some evidence that some may not be helped but these sessions. In fact, some may even be harmed. 

The evidence of possible harm is not new. Yet, debriefing is still offered indiscriminately. We find it hard to let go what seems to work. Today I was able to read a 2006 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (citation below). This bit of research compared emotional debriefing, educational only debriefing, and no treatment. This study of Dutch civilians who had experienced a single episode of trauma within the last two weeks found that all three groups (emotion oriented debriefing, education only, and no treatment) saw a decrease of symptoms at 2 and 6 weeks post intervention. There was no benefit from either form of debriefing found in this study. 

In addition to no benefit, those individuals with high arounsal trauma symptoms who completed emotional debriefing showed higher rates of PTSD symptoms than the those with higher arousal who did nothing or only the educational oriented debriefing intervention. So, some forms of debriefing may actually worsen symptoms. Why? The authors surmise, 

In previous studies it has been established that high degrees of arousal in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event are associated with an increased risk for the development of PTSD, measured both by self-report (Carlier et al, 1997; Schell et al, 2004) and physiologically by means of heart rate response (Shalev et al, 1998; Bryant et al, 2000; Zatzick et al, 2005). Encouraging highly aroused trauma survivors to express their feeling and emotions concerning the trauma might activate the sympathetic nervous system to such a degree that successful encoding of the traumatic memory is disrupted. Moreover, during an emotional debriefing session negative appraisal of one’s sense of mastery may be promoted (Weisaeth, 2000). This is assumed to keep the hyperreactive individual in a state of high arousal which may cause symptoms of PTSD to escalate rather than resolve (McCleery & Harvey, 2004). 

So, what should we do with this information? Nothing? No. But what we do should not harm, especially when we know some may be harmed. I suggest a few possible outcomes:

  1. Education about PTSD and trauma should continue. This study does not reveal harm for this intervention and given the relatively low trauma symptoms in this study (and the possibility some may have already been aware of what trauma is), education is likely to be helpful. Education is not only about trauma but also about good coping skills and activities. It does not focus on the events of the trauma experienced.
  2. Bible-based trauma healing begins not with a person’s story but looks at culture and common reactions. It normalizes pain and suffering and connects people to God and others. We do not yet have great empirical evidence (it is being collected) that such an intervention is helpful or harmful. But it appears that giving people permission to ask questions of their faith and to see that God encourages lament may still be helpful. 
  3. We need assessment of the growing movement and art oriented responses to trauma. What do these non-talk therapies add to the prevention or intervention strategies? 
  4. Debriefing or talking about a trauma that has just happened should focus less on replaying the details and more on current cognitive and affective impact with focus on resilience and boosting existing capacities. Brief assessment of arousal symptoms may well be warranted by those who promote processing trauma stories. This may be why NET, CPT and DBT oriented PE have lower drop-out rates than classic PE (prolonged exposure) therapy. 

Citation: Emotional or educational debriefing after psychological trauma (Randomised controlled trial) by MARIT SIJBRANDIJ, MIRANDA OLFF, JOHANNES B. REITSMA, INGRID V. E. CARLIER and BERTHOLD P. R. GERSONS. In BRITISH JOURNAL OF PSYCHIATRY (2006), 189, 150-155. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.105.021121

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Filed under mental health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Psychology

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