Associate Professor of Psychology Tomas Yufik counsels vets with PTSD — and researches how successful treatments can be applied everywhere from the ballot box to the dentist’s chair.

As many as 20 percent of veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For Vietnam vets, that number is 30 percent.

Behavioral Neuroscience major Libby Fish ’18 is conducting research with Associate Professor of Psychology Tomas Yufik in a nitrous oxide study. “I plan to be a dentist, but I love learning about the brain and how different chemicals can alter behavior,” she says. “If we find that nitrous oxide is effective in treating depressive symptoms in people with PTSD, we could help improve so many lives — including those who put their lives on the line for this country.”

Even more troubling than these statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is the difficulty in diagnosing and treating PTSD, says Associate Professor of Psychology Tomas Yufik. Based on his clinical expertise counseling veterans (and nonveterans) coping with PTSD, anxiety, depression and a host of other psychological concerns, Yufik advocates a diagnosis framework that incorporates adaptable and comprehensive tools like empirically based personality assessments and personal interviews. “When veterans come in, it’s often because they’re required to,” he says. “They’ve experienced trauma, but they don’t want to talk about it. The more time you can spend with someone and the more assessments you can give, the stronger and more accurate your diagnosis is going to be.”

It’s time well spent, says Yufik, because rigorous evaluation leads to more effective treatment.

It also helps normalize what vets often see as a stigma attached to PTSD. “They may regard their struggles as personal weakness,” he says. “But the more we talk about it, the more they come to understand that their symptoms are totally normal — and treatable. They are not alone, and they can recover.”

Yufik relies on a variety of techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapies like replacing irrational thought patterns; increased exposure to triggering stimuli like crowded places; and relaxation and mindfulness training. He also researches how those techniques may help other populations cope with PTSD, as well as the effectiveness of new techniques that show promise.

That’s where his students come in. Currently, he is collaborating with students to study the prevalence of PTSD symptoms among Austin entrepreneurs, the efficacy of treating PTSD with dentistry mainstay nitrous oxide, and how elections can trigger PTSD. “A student will come to me and say, ‘Hey, I have this idea …’” he says. “I help them explore every facet of it until, together, we make a decision about how we’re going to pursue it.”

Beyond the publications and presentations students inevitably add to their résumés, Yufik makes sure they connect the dots between research and practice. “Research informs and improves our ability to diagnose clients and identify promising new treatment methods,” he says. “Once students see how their work connects to people’s lives, their view of the field — and how they can contribute to it — broadens exponentially.”

By Stacia M. Miller MLA ’05