Harvard Mental Health Letter

First aid for emotional trauma

When and how must we act to prevent lasting damage?

A great deal is known about first aid for physical wounds but much less — despite advances since the mid-1980s — about how to prevent the injuries that come from memories of traumatic experience. One popular method, critical incident stress debriefing, may be ineffective or worse. Cognitive behavioral therapy shows some promise, and there are experimental drugs that raise difficult questions. It is fortunate that, in the end, most people can cope with traumatic experiences if left to their own devices.

Many symptoms can result from traumatic events — experiences that involve a threat of death or serious injury and evoke fear, helplessness, or horror. Apart from depression and complicated grief, the main effect is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It lasts for at least a month and has three kinds of symptoms:

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