A wealth of evidence has illustrated that reductions in negative posttrauma cognitions (NPCs) predict improvement in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during treatment. Yet, the specific temporal arrangement of changes in these constructs is less well understood. This study examined the temporal association between NPC changes and PTSD symptom changes in two distinct intensive PTSD treatment samples.
Data from 502 veterans who completed a 3-week CPT-based intensive PTSD treatment program was used to test the extent to which lagged NPC measurement predicted the next occurring PTSD severity measurement using linear mixed effects regression models. PTSD severity was assessed every other day during treatment. NPCs were assessed at three treatment timepoints. A second sample of 229 veterans who completed a 2-week CPT-based intensive PTSD treatment program was used to replicate these findings.
Across both intensive PTSD treatment programs, NPCs generally increased from intake the end of the first treatment week, which was followed by gradual decreases in NPCs throughout the rest of both programs. Change in NPCs during both the 3-week (b = .21, p < .001, R2 = .38) and the 2-week programs (b = 0.20, p < .001, R2 = .24) were significant predictors of change in PTSD symptom severity. However, the reverse was true as well, with change in PTSD severity predicting latter change in NPCs during both the 3-week (b = 1.51, p < .001, R2 = .37) and 2-week (b = 1.37, p < .001, R2 = .33) programs, further raising questions about temporality of the association between NPCs and PTSD symptom severity during treatment.
The present study demonstrated that changes in NPCs may not temporally precede changes in PTSD symptom severity in PTSD treatment samples. Instead, we observed earlier PTSD symptom changes and a bidirectional association between the two constructs across both samples. Clinically, the study supports the continued focus on NPCs as an important treatment target as they are an important indicator of successful PTSD treatment, even if they may not be a direct mechanism of treatment-based changes in PTSD severity. Future research should attempt to identify alternative mechanisms of change in CPT.