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How can the humanistic perspective be useful in understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Updated on October 21, 2016

The human response to traumatic stress is one of the most significant public health issues in modern medicine and psychiatry. Traumatic stressful events and the subsequent way how individuals and groups deal with them, play a crucial role in the development of not only PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) but also of many, if not all other mental and somatic disorders.

There has been a great debate about core issues in defining PTSD with disagreements about the nature of stressful events that act sufficiently traumatic to precipitate PTSD, with different views on the characteristic symptoms that follow exposure to traumatic stress and their subjective meaning, with different ideas about how best to prevent and treat PTSD and with different proposals about what kind of compensation should be given to the individuals by society. In a number of recent studies on psychiatry, PTSD is indicated as a highly prevalent and disabling disease, the source of huge suffering, commonly associated with other mental disorders and somatic diseases, and growing the public health burden (Stein et al., 2011). From the behavior perspective, PTSD is defined as a disorder of reactivity, which manifests itself as characteristic maladaptive behavior during interactions with the interpersonal or physical environment (Friedman, 2007). Although PTSD is often linked with the Vietnam combat veteran, PTSD is the term applied to psychological and emotional problems that develop as the result of experiencing any serious, traumatic event; including natural or accidental disasters or deliberately caused disasters, such as rape, assault, kidnapping, torture or combat. In our research, we are going to concentrate on the humanistic approach to PTSD as a mainstream approach to deal with traumatic stress. Thus, the paper aims to answer the following research question: ‘How can the humanistic perspective be useful in understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?”

Actually, trauma therapy is a complex biological, psychological and social project that unfolds in stages over time and may involve many different modalities to reach a stage of optimal recovery. In terms of proven efficacy, humanistic approach has a long tradition in PTSD treatment. What makes this approach work in PTSD treatment is the personal responsibility of humanistic therapists, who understand their clients’ anxieties and experiences, guide them through their struggles and provide a supporting environment, in which their clients can grow and rehabilitate their injured emotions. Symptoms of PTSD cause considerable distress and can significantly interfere with social, educational and occupational functioning. People suffering from PTSD survived a terrifying experience that left them feeling helpless and frightened. Though the trauma may have occurred months or years ago, the survivor continues to have problems because they keep re-experiencing the traumatic event, or avoid stimuli associate with the event, or get generally “numb” to all feelings. In addition to the emotional component of these devastating events, many survivors also have other physical problems that were produced by the trauma itself that will affect their functioning for a lifetime.

According to humanistic theory, the most important agents of therapeutic change are the personality of the therapist and the therapist-client relationship. The following are therapeutic guidelines that emphasize the development of the personal qualities of a healer in the therapist and the transformative potential of the healing relationship. The ability to face mortality can lead to creativity and boldness in the face of death; life-changing events can be transformative; trauma involves the whole person; normalcy is socially constructed; and the human condition means living with uncertainty. Therefore, a humanistic approach to trauma requires from therapists the ability to confront one's own fears of death or darkness; the ability to create life-affirming connections; creativity and communication; development of strengths in self and other; personal psychological and spiritual maturity.

Humanistic therapy recognizes the relational aspect of life and therapy, helping clients to become aware of their experiences, potentialities, and means of interaction with the therapist. The nature of the relationship may differ from more classical kinds of therapy: for instance the existential therapist functions as a person in a meaningful encounter with another person. This is particularly pertinent to traumatized clients, as case examples concerned with trauma illustrate how the development of the therapeutic relationship significantly contribute to resolution of thematic issues, acknowledging that the dynamic process of recovery from a trauma can only occur within the context of a meaningful therapeutic relationship. Roth and Batson (Roth and Batson, 1993) maintain that there is a distinctly humane understanding of the role of the therapist as someone to bear witness to the trauma, to be a real partner in the re-experiencing of the trauma, and of course to provide a safe environment in which to do the trauma work. With relevance to humanistic approach, it is highlighted that existential therapists generally believe that effective therapy evolves out of the therapist’s willingness to utilize the self to facilitate relationship, action and reflection experiences that help the client work through and struggle with the ultimate issues of human life during the therapeutic process.


To conclude, the humanistic perspective can be very useful in understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The humanistic approach to trauma can bring human beings closer to truth and humanity. It does this by supporting trauma survivors in their confrontation with fundamental existential issues and by helping them move to new levels of psychological and spiritual growth. From this perspective, a human being is inseparable from their social context. People can only heal from trauma if supported as whole beings and provided a safe channel to explore their world and reconnect with themselves. The responsibility of humanistic therapists therefore ultimately lies in understanding their clients’ anxieties and experiences, in understanding their post-traumatic reactions and how to cope with them.


Friedman, M.J., Keane, T.M. & Resick, P.A. (2007). Handbook on PTSD: Science and practice. New York & London: The Guilford Press.

Stein, D.J., Blanco, C. & Friedman, M.J. (2011). Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Roth, S. & Batson, R. (1993). The creative balance: The therapeutic relationship and thematic issues in trauma resolution. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 6(2) 159-177.


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