Early psychological interventions to treat acute traumatic stress symptoms

Traumatic events can have a significant impact on individuals', families' and communities' abilities to cope. In the past, single session interventions such as psychological debriefing were widely used with the aim of preventing continuing psychological difficulties. However, previous reviews have found that single session individual interventions and interventions provided to all have not been effective at preventing PTSD. A range of other forms of intervention have been developed to try to reduce psychological distress for individuals exposed to trauma. This review evaluated the results of 15 studies that tested a diverse range of psychological interventions aimed at treating acute traumatic stress problems. There was evidence to support the use of trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy with such individuals, although there were a number of potential biases in identified studies which means the results should be treated with some caution. Further research is required to evaluate longer terms effects of TF-CBT, to explore potential benefits of other forms of intervention and to identify the most effective ways of providing psychological help in the early stages after a traumatic event.

Authors' conclusions: 

There was evidence that individual TF-CBT was effective for individuals with acute traumatic stress symptoms compared to both waiting list and supportive counselling interventions. The quality of trials included was variable and sample sizes were often small. There was considerable clinical heterogeneity in the included studies and unexplained statistical heterogeneity observed in some comparisons. This suggests the need for caution in interpreting the results of this review. Additional high quality trials with longer follow up periods are required to further test TF-CBT and other forms of psychological intervention.

Read the full abstract...

The amelioration of psychological distress following traumatic events is a major concern. Systematic reviews suggest that interventions targeted at all of those exposed to such events are not effective at preventing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recently other forms of intervention have been developed with the aim of treating acute traumatic stress problems.


To perform a systematic review of randomised controlled trials of all psychological treatments and interventions commenced within three months of a traumatic event aimed at treating acute traumatic stress reactions. The review followed the guidelines of the Cochrane Collaboration.

Search strategy: 

Systematic searches were performed of of CCDAN Registers up to August 2008. Editions of key journals were searched by hand over a period of two years; personal communication was undertaken with key experts in the field; online discussion fora were searched.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials of any psychological intervention or treatment designed to reduce acute traumatic stress symptoms, with the exception of single session interventions.

Data collection and analysis: 

Data were entered and analysed for summary effects using Review Manager 5.0 software. Standardised mean differences were calculated for continuous variable outcome data. Relative risks were calculated for dichotomous outcome data. When statistical heterogeneity was present a random effects model was applied.

Main results: 

Fifteen studies (two with long term follow-up studies) were identified examining a range of interventions.

In terms of main findings, twelve studies evaluated brief trauma focused cognitive behavioural interventions (TF-CBT). TF-CBT was more effective than a waiting list intervention (6 studies, 471 participants; SMD -0.64, 95% CI -1.06, -0.23) and supportive counselling (4 studies, 198 participants; SMD -0.67, 95% CI -1.12, -0.23). Effects against supportive counselling were still present at 6 month follow-up (4 studies, 170 participants; SMD -0.64, 95% CI -1.02, -0.25). There was no evidence of the effectiveness of a structured writing intervention when compared against minimal intervention (2 studies, 149 participants; SMD -0.15, 95% CI -0.48, 0.17).