When you’ve experienced trauma, receiving early emotional and practical support can help you cope and address your physical and emotional needs. Many organizations use a system known as psychological first aid (PFA) to assist survivors in the immediate aftermath of a distressing event. Let’s explore how PFA works, whether it can reduce the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and what to do if you experience ongoing PTSD symptoms.
Understanding Psychological First Aid: What Does PFA Mean?
To understand whether mental health first aid can prevent PTSD, we first need to define PFA. Psychological first aid, commonly referred to using the PFA acronym, is a framework designed to help people who’ve gone through a distressing experience. PFA doesn’t treat the long-term psychological effects of trauma. Instead, health care providers and first responders may use this post-traumatic stress first aid model to support people immediately after a traumatic event.
Some organizations train psychological first aiders to deliver PFA to employees or service users. For example, emergency services may offer PFA training to workers who routinely encounter traumatic scenarios in the course of their duties. Disaster response organizations may also train employees and volunteers in PFA so they can support survivors appropriately.
Professionals often use the PFA model created by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network in partnership with the National Center for PTSD. This model is based on scientific evidence and helps providers assist people in the first days and weeks after experiencing trauma. It aims to reduce immediate distress and show people ways to cope with their feelings and experiences. Professionals can adapt the principles to suit each person’s unique needs, but the model always encompasses the following actions:
- Engaging the person compassionately
- Ensuring the person’s physical safety and providing comfort
- Stabilizing people who feel overwhelmed or disoriented
- Identifying what an individual needs and creating a personalized support plan
- Assisting with immediate practical needs
- Making contact with social support networks, such as family, friends and community resources
- Providing information on how to cope with stress and emotional difficulties
- Helping the person connect with supportive services
Studies suggest that psychological first aid can reduce the symptoms of PTSD after a distressing event. However, further research is needed to assess the long-term outcomes and gather unbiased information on the benefits of PFA for trauma.
Recognizing PTSD Risk Factors
Understanding the risk factors for PTSD can help health care professionals and first responders provide appropriate support. There’s a common misconception that PTSD only affects military veterans. While experiencing combat can increase your risk of PTSD, anyone can develop the condition after a traumatic event.
Various experiences can trigger PTSD. You may develop it following abuse, sexual violence, a natural disaster or any other event that made you feel frightened or threatened. People who witness these events are also at risk of PTSD, and some individuals develop symptoms if someone they love goes through trauma.
According to research, PTSD affects around 6% of American adults. It impacts more women than men, and it’s thought that some people are more genetically predisposed to PTSD than others.
Early intervention after a traumatic event could reduce the severity of PTSD symptoms. A 2021 study found that people with acute injuries experienced reduced symptoms after 6 months when provided with early support. Other research shows that training people in psychological first aid principles can help responders provide the right support to people immediately after a distressing event.
Therefore, receiving PFA could promote recovery if you experience PTSD following a traumatic experience. However, receiving psychological first aid may not prevent you from developing PTSD symptoms in the future. You may need long-term treatment to help you work through your thoughts and feelings and develop effective coping strategies.
Scientific research shows that social support can reduce PTSD symptoms. Receiving compassionate support from a mental health first aider after a distressing event may alleviate symptoms in the aftermath. Furthermore, a professional using the PFA model could help you connect with friends, family and community services for long-term support.
Working With Professionals
If you’re experiencing ongoing PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares and intrusive thoughts, working with professionals experienced in supporting trauma survivors could aid in your recovery. Your health care provider may recommend psychotherapy to help you learn strategies to manage your symptoms. Therapy can also treat other issues that often affect people with PTSD, such as depression and substance misuse. Some people find certain medications beneficial when paired with psychotherapy.
Various therapies are used to reduce PTSD symptoms; the right approach for you depends on your symptoms and goals. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches you to address negative thought patterns that could otherwise prevent recovery. Exposure therapy involves safe exposure to the thoughts and situations that trigger your symptoms to make them less threatening.
Your provider may also suggest eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which involves revisiting traumatic events while moving your eyes rapidly from side to side. EMDR can help you process trauma and adapt how you react to distressing thoughts and memories.
Self-help measures may reduce your symptoms and allow you to enjoy better physical and mental health while working with a professional to treat PTSD. These can include:
- Avoiding using alcohol or drugs to cope with distressing thoughts and feelings
- Distracting yourself with enjoyable activities to reduce anxiety
- Staying connected with loved ones
- Joining a local or online support group for trauma survivors
- Practicing healthy lifestyle habits such as eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough rest
Get Expert Assistance
Psychological first aid can help you cope in the initial aftermath of a traumatic event and may reduce PTSD symptoms further down the line. However, you may need ongoing support so you can process your experiences and manage PTSD symptoms. Contact Restore today to start your journey toward recovery and discover our compassionate, evidence-based treatment options.