Can ABA Therapy Be Used To Treat PTSD?

Though it has been widely used as a treatment for children on the autism spectrum, these days ongoing research has indicated that ABA therapy can also help children and adults who struggle with a variety of different issues and disorders.

And one of the standouts of non-autism-related treatments is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a disorder that will affect approximately 6% of Americans at some point in their lives, according to the US Department of Veteran Affairs. Let’s take a look at how this therapeutic treatment can be used to help treat people struggling with PTSD and related symptoms.

What Is ABA Therapy?

Color MatchingApplied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) is an evidence-based therapy used to reinforce positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors in children and adults on the autism spectrum. It also helps people to build specific essential skills that will help them to integrate into communities more easily and reduce their need for special care in the future.

ABA is evidence-based because it has been tried and tested by medical professionals in order to ensure effectiveness and reliability as a therapeutic treatment. This particular form of therapy has been used to treat autism, ADHD, PTSD, anxiety, anger issues, and more.

Though it can be carried out one-on-one or in small group sessions, this treatment is highly specialized and uses different reward systems and strategies based on the individual’s needs, background, behaviors, and more. These reward systems help individuals to practice desired behaviors and skills while teaching them to curb unwanted behaviors by disincentivizing them.

What Is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological disorder that occurs as the result of a traumatic event either witnessed or experienced by the individual. PTSD can be triggered by many different kinds of horrifying events, including but not limited to war/combat, physical & sexual violence, natural disasters, serious injury, and more.

Historically PTSD was known as “shell shock” and was typically associated with combat veterans after World War I and II. Almost a century later medical professionals now know that this disorder can affect anyone, and is not exclusive to war and combat.

For people who live with PTSD, the disorder can often be debilitating, making it difficult to carry out daily tasks and live a normal life. It can have a serious impact on your school and/or work life, family life, and relationships, and can also take a toll on your physical health.

PTSD can bring up feelings of sadness and anger, intrusive thoughts, and serious adverse reactions to sights and sounds that may remind them of the traumatizing event.


There are many varied symptoms that may indicate a PTSD diagnosis, but they tend to fall into four specific categories. These PTSD symptoms include:

  • Intrusion: includes intrusive sensations of reliving the traumatic event – involuntary memories, flashbacks, and vivid nightmares – and extreme reactions to sights and sounds that may remind them of the event.
  • Avoidance: includes avoidance of anything that may trigger traumatic memories, particularly places, people, or activities. This can include active avoidance of talking about/thinking about things they may associate with these memories.
  • Changes in mood and thinking: can include gaps in memory, negative thoughts that can distort views of themselves and others, feelings of hopelessness, fear, shame, guilt, blaming oneself for the traumatic event(s), estrangement from friends and family, inability or difficulty feeling positive emotions.
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions: can include self-destructiveness or reckless behavior, outbursts of anger/frustration/irritation, difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and becoming paranoid and easily frightened/startled aggressive behavior.

ABA Therapy And PTSD

One aspect of ABA therapy is exposing patients to real-world scenarios, particularly ones that may provoke fear and anxiety, but in a safe and controlled environment. By being exposed to the cause of their fears, they are better able to see the consequences and understand that they are not as bad as the individual fears. Repeating this over time should hopefully help the individual to work through those fears and respond to them in more manageable ways.

The above is called exposure therapy, which is often practiced within ABA. Exposure therapy is also very useful for the treatment of PTSD, in which case it is sometimes known as behavioral activation. Behavioral activation uses exposure therapy to expose people with PTSD to their triggers in a safe environment. By analyzing their responses, an ABA therapist is able to help train the individual to adopt more positive behavioral responses.

As they become better able to manage their reactions to these “triggers,” the negative or traumatic associations they have with them should fade over time.

But ABA does more than just train their automatic reactions to triggers. It also helps the patient to understand how their triggers work, how they can respond to them, and even substitute these mental triggers with thoughts that are more positive and even pleasurable.

Above all, examining the triggers, anxieties/fears and negative thought patterns connected to their PTSD will help to empower the individual. Many people who experience PTSD feel a sense of impending doom and an overall lack of control that can be overwhelming – ABA therapy can help return their sense of control over their traumatic past experiences.

If you or someone close to you is struggling with the effects of PTSD and looking for alternative treatments, ABA therapy may be of interest to you. For more information on the use of ABA and PTSD as well as other related disorders, get in touch with our team at Bolling ABA. You can call us at +404-981-4105 or send an email to arrange your first consultation.

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