Exposure therapy is the process of reliving the death of a loved one, and some mental health professionals believe the process could assist those dealing with long-term grief.
Death can cause significant stress in survivors, and feelings of deep yearning for the person lost, along with feelings of helplessness and anger. However, these normally give way, over time, to new interests and acceptance of the loss.
Between seven and 10 percent of people dealing with the death of a close friend or family member can become "stuck" at the grief stage, unable to move on with their lives. Those who are stalled at this stage for six months or longer may be diagnosed with Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD), a newly-recognized condition.
"At the moment, many doctors are probably treating them with antidepressants but we know this is quite different from depression," Richard Bryant from the University of New South Wales, said.
A total of 80 subjects were included in the latest research, who were each treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) during group therapy. This technique teaches subjects how to better manage thoughts, providing some relief from unpleasant experiences. Each of the ten sessions, which took place once a week for 10 weeks, lasted two hours.
While half of the subjects continued with CBT treatment during private sessions, the remainder focused on reliving their experience. During this time, volunteers described their time surrounding the death, while therapists directed them to focus on the most painful aspects of the experience.
Exposure therapy has been used previously to successfully treat PTSD in veterans and victims of sexual assault. This new study revealed the treatment can also be effective at relieving the condition in those who are caught in the grief stage of losing a loved one to death.
Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD), also called complicated grief, is more common when a sudden death occurs, such as murders, suicides and car accidents. When a child is lost, parents are sometimes afflicted by this condition. If left untreated, symptoms can last for years.
At the end of four one-hour sessions, subjects in the experimental group showed lessening of symptoms. Just six of the 40 people in the group treated with exposure therapy still suffered from PGD, compared to 13 of 40 in the control population.
Researchers believe this new finding could assist mental health professionals in developing personalized treatment plans for those suffering from extended periods of grief.
The effect of exposure therapy on people suffering from prolonged grief was detailed in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.