Solution: Narrative Exposure Therapy

Presented by Benjamin Iffland, PhD, Bielefeld University.

Narrative exposure therapy (NET) is an evidence-based method of treatment that has been shown to be helpful in reducing symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been particularly successful in supporting people who have experienced multiple traumatic events.

In this talk, Iffland discusses why narrative exposure works and how therapists can use it to help people who have experienced traumatic events.

Watch now to learn more about:

  • How trauma affects memory
  • Why NET works
  • How NET is implemented

In understanding how NET works, it is important to consider that PTSD is a memory disorder.

Iffland explains how traumatic memories are characterized by sensory perceptual representations that are stored in fear networks.

Internal and external cues can activate a person’s fear networks. In addition, a person’s traumatic memories lack context. Iffland shares, “Within the memory of a traumatic event, time stands still, and spaces and places are restricted.”

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According to Iffland, this leads to difficulties in recalling traumatic memories. On the one hand, people with PTSD experience avoidance—they do not wish to have a frightening recollection and relive the traumatic event. On the other hand, they struggle to place memories in the context of the event and in the chronological order of their life histories.

In NET, therapists work with patients to activate the fear network to enable habituation. They also help patients complete their autobiographical memory, which had been disrupted by significant trauma.

In NET, traumatic events are never regarded as isolated events in a person’s life history. All significant life events, both positive and negative, are reviewed in therapy.

When providing NET, therapists help patients build a “lifeline”—a chronological reconstruction of all of the patient’s important life events. NET exposes patients to their traumatic memories, while also integrating traumatic and non-traumatic memories.

Over the course of 12-14 sessions, a patient tells their life stories to their therapist and begins to find meaning as their narrative evolves.

During this process, the therapist writes down the patient’s narrative and reviews it with the patient. Having the story shared and documented in this way helps the patient integrate their experiences. The process provides the patient with dignity from being heard and understood.

NET has been proven to create a significant reduction in PTSD, even in areas with unsafe living conditions.

Beyond addressing PTSD outcomes, NET has been shown to be beneficial for symptoms of depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health conditions. It has been proven effective in age groups ranging from children to older adults.

NET can be provided by trained lay therapists, such as teachers, health care workers, and community members. This is particularly important since this therapy can be useful in areas where there is an increased demand, but where fewer mental health resources exist.

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Benjamin Iffland, PhD, is a research associate at Bielefeld University in Germany.