Original Research

How Effective Is Group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Treat PTSD?

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A review of studies of the efficacy of group therapy to treat posttraumatic stress disorder suggests it can be an effective treatment for symptom reduction.



Anxiety is a necessary and natural reaction to trauma, but, sometimes, anxiety symptoms become excessive and problematic, as experienced with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some patients who struggle with PTSD endure a relentless apprehension so intense that it keeps them from participating in everyday activities, such as attending work and partaking in social activities. Associated anxiety symptoms severely impair everyday function and include increased heart rate, sweating, intrusive images, poor attention, fear, or insomnia. Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms often lead to occupational dysfunction, relationship difficulty, and numerous other functional impairments.

Approximately 300,000 veterans meet the criteria for PTSD related to ongoing or recent wars.1 The veteran does not bear the personal and functional burden alone; however, the financial load is felt throughout society. One recent study suggests that for veterans diagnosed with PTSD, the first 2 years after deployment cost society an estimated $7,000 per individial.2 Current research suggests that this potentially debilitating disorder occurs in about 14% of Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom combat troops, whereas the similar U.S. demographic population experiences PTSD at a rate of about 7%.1,3 The ongoing military trauma exposures are compelling the mental health community to establish efficient and effective treatment options.4,5

Several treatment strategies exist to reduce PTSD symptoms, but health care professionals must seek a balance between therapeutic benefit and cost. The treatment of PTSD is diverse and variable; however, in the most recent Clinical Practice Guideline (CPG) for PTSD, the VA and DoD specifically endorse some psychotherapeutic interventions while dissuading the use of others.6 Of note, the VA and DoD CPG strongly encourages Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) and similar cognitive therapies aimed at guiding patients through the process of consciously understanding the relationship between thoughts and feelings and then modifying thoughts to appropriately manage stressors.6 Meanwhile, group psychotherapy has been determined to be “somewhat helpful.”6 Even though cognitive- and group-based therapies have long been established as efficacious for numerous psychological disorders (depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, etc), neither the American Group Psychotherapy Association nor the VA and DoD CPG directly endorse the use of group cognitive behavioral therapy (GCBT) for the treatment of PTSD.6,7 However, both VA and DoD mental health providers commonly practice CBT and various group psychotherapies for the treatment of PTSD.

Despite the widespread use of CBT, there is a gap in the clinical understanding of the evidence supporting GCBT for PTSD. The goal of this synthesis was to understand the efficacy of treating PTSD symptoms with group psychotherapy. To begin this investigation, the following PICO (population, intervention, comparison, outcome) question was asked: In adults diagnosed with PTSD, how effective is group cognitive behavioral therapy in reducing PTSD-related symptoms?


Research articles addressing the use of GCBT in PTSD were obtained via database searches that took place during October 2012 (Table). Searched databases included the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews Randomized Controlled Trials, Psychological Information (PsycINFO), and Public Medicine (PubMed).

The PubMed database was searched using the following MeSH (medical subject heading) terms: “psychotherapy, group” and “stress disorders, post-traumatic” and “cognitive therapy.” Limitations were set to include only patients aged ≥ 18 years, results in English, those involving human subjects, and articles published within the past 5 years. A manual search of references was also conducted, and relevant articles were retained.

Articles that addressed primary substance abuse, other DSM Axis I disorders, intimate partner violence, or family issues were excluded from the evidence sample due to concerns of an alternate treatment focus. Articles with a focus on telehealth or alternative medicine were considered confounding to the scope of this review were also excluded. It was also noted that the term CBT is used collectively for an umbrella of treatments; however, treatments that focused on elements other than the components of CBT being delivered in a group were not included. To prevent duplication of the results, research from an inclusive review was not considered individually.


Six works fulfilled the PICO criteria and were of sufficient quality to be synthesized. Of the 6 articles retained for synthesis, 2 were high-level reviews. Both reviews supported the use of GCBT for PTSD treatment. Barrera and colleagues reported an overall large effect size regardless of the presence of exposure in-group among the 12 treatment conditions and 651 study participants.8 These researchers also reported that in-group exposure did not further traumatize other group members.

Similarly, although a notably older and smaller review, Bisson and Andrew reported a significant standard mean deviation between 4 GCBT treatment and wait list controls. These reviewers did not find a significant difference between trauma- and nontrauma-focused treatment groups. The reviews also noted that individual psychotherapy and/or pharmacotherapy was most often continued throughout the reviewed studies.8,9

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