ISTDP for Traumatized Patients

“I meet a lot of patients multi-traumatized, highly dissociative with PTSD. After initial stabilization, could these patients benefit from a treatment based on ISTDP principles?” Thanks to Christopher for this important question!

The graded format of ISTDP is a terrific treatment for traumatized patients. I think it may be one of the very best. Why? Because ISTDP is the only treatment model available that understands the pathways of anxiety discharge, has a theory of a threshold for anxiety tolerance, has a theory of differentiating anxiety caused by feeling versus anxiety perpetuated by regressive defenses, and has a theory of anxiety regulation which differentiates anxiety from projective anxiety.

Further, ISTDP is uniquely prepared for these patients because it has a theory for differentiating feelings from defensive affects that result from regressive defenses. And it has a theory that allows it to differentiate regression in the service of the ego from regression of the ego itself.

In the graded format, we help patients face as much feeling as they can as long as their anxiety goes into the striated muscles and the patient does not use regressive defenses. Under those conditions the patient becomes increasingly integrated as the result of experiencing his feelings. If the patient’s anxiety goes into cognitive/perceptual disruption, his prefrontal cortex and hippocampus shut down, preventing higher order thought, understanding, and integration of learning. If the patient uses regressive defenses, the patient’s reality testing continues to worsen, leading to a regression of ego functioning and loss of reality testing.

Thus, as soon as the patient experiences anxiety in the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, we regulate anxiety immediately to restore optimal brain functioning. As soon as the patient uses a regressive defense, we restructure the regressive defense to prevent a regression in reality testing and ego functioning. Step by step we increase the patient’s tolerance of affect, we restructure the pathway of anxiety discharge, and we strengthen the ego.

Rather than explore high levels of feeling which would overwhelm and re-traumatize the patient, we build the patient’s capacity to tolerate feelings step by step. Rather than explore the products of the patient’s defense such as the multiples selves of dissociation, we regulate the patient’s anxiety, which makes her brain malfunction. Once her brain is functioning correctly again, we restructure her defense. We do not integrate the “selves” which result from the defenses of splitting and dissociation. Instead, we help the person let go of defenses like splitting and dissociation and then integrate her previously warded off feelings.

When the patient experiences overwhelming dysregulated affects, we address the regressive defenses which create those defensive affects. By restructuring the regressive defenses, the dysregulated affects stop, the patient’s reality testing is restored, and then we can face the underlying feelings which were originally triggered by the traumas, bit by bit gradually.

When the patient experiences a loss of reality testing such as a “flashback”, we regulate her anxiety, help her differentiate the past and present, increase her reality testing, and then from this new position of strength help her face a little bit more feeling.

For examples of how the graded format of ISTDP works with highly traumatized patients, visit the resources page and download the article about the man who awoke from a coma, a case of a dissociative patient. Or download the article about separating the ego and superego in a recovering drug addict. She had been verbally, physically, and sexually abused as a child. Or you might consider buying the DVD of the fragile man who had fourteen previous therapists. He also had been severely traumatized as a child. These examples will help you understand the graded format of ISTDP, a format of treatment tailored to help fragile, traumatized patients. For more information on the graded format, the middle third of my book, Co-Creating Change: Effective Dynamic Therapy Techniques, is devoted to the graded format.






2 responses to “ISTDP for Traumatized Patients”

  1. Tomas Nygren Avatar
    Tomas Nygren

    Hi Jon, thanks for the great post! I have a question about if you think there is a difference with regards to trauma that happens in childhood vs for example the traumatic experiences of soldiers in war. Im kind of just free associating here but im thinking that if a soldier is traumatized by nearly being killed by a bomb detonating that wouldnt neccesarily trigger any other feelings than fear. If the fear activation is too high and the memory cant be integrated i guess that could cause PTSD symptoms but then there wouldnt be any feelings “underneath” the anxiety so to speak, right? I can of course still see how a theory of anxiety discharge would be extremely useful in a case like this but wouldnt the treatment have to be modified a bit since you would be more interested in uncovering “unintegrated memories” than uncounscious feeling (maybe a fine distinction but still)? What is your experience in working with these kinds of patients?

    1. Jon Frederickson Avatar
      Jon Frederickson

      Hi Tomas, Great point! There is a big difference developmentally when trauma occurs in childhood versus in adulthood. Also, there is a big difference between a trauma occurring with someone you love as a child versus a trauma inflicted by an enemy toward whom you have no mixed feelings. However, whether you use ISTDP or an exposure therapy like Foa’s, we are still exposing the patient to the stimuli that triggered the feelings that cause the anxiety. At the time of trauma, the hippocampus, due to high anxiety, cannot integrate the memories. Feelings are basic memories of experience. And those get integrated in any kind of exposure therapy. It’s just that the feelings are not the same as the mixed complex feelings a child would have toward his parents.

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