BIU Alumna Edna Foa Helps Alleviate the Torment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

For years it went unacknowledged. When it finally was identified as something real, it was mostly ignored. But, following the Vietnam War and, even more so, after the two longest wars in the history of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military conceded it had a problem...a big one. That’s when it turned to experts including Bar-Ilan University graduate Prof. Edna Foa, the world’s leading expert on treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


PTSD is a particularly debilitating disorder of the mind that combines symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger and isolation. It may be set off by a litany of horrors – rape, childhood sexual abuse, natural disasters and increasingly, as it is now known, by war. 


According to studies, it is estimated that between 300,000 to 400,000 soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD.  Foa developed a therapeutic technique called “Prolonged Exposure,” considered by many professionals to be the most evidence-based treatment for PTSD.


Prolonged Exposure can be distressing in the beginning, but it works. Patients are asked to describe their traumatic memories repeatedly, in present tense with their eyes closed, essentially revisiting the traumatic memory. They are also asked to gradually approach safe situations that they often avoid because those environments remind them of the initial trauma.

“The treatment,” Foa says, “helps patients correct misconceptions about what is dangerous.” By describing the traumatic experience, they can ultimately see it “as something that happened in the past and that is no longer making everyday events feel dangerous.” The treatment works fast – usually within 12 sessions.


Foa, 74, was born in Haifa. She started her career studying post-rape trauma some thirty years ago after receiving er BA in Psychology and Literature from Bar-Ilan in 1962. She chose Bar- Ilan in part because the University's psychology department stressed both experimental and clinical practice, a combination which was unusual in Israel at the time. Foa moved to the U.S. when her then husband landed an academic position there. Foa received a PhD at the University of Missouri in 1970. She is now Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, which she founded.


Despite her many years in the U.S., Foa has remained committed and connected to Israel. “There was never a year that I didn’t visit,” she says, and while she tried to devote vacations in her homeland to family, “I always wound up giving several seminars,” including several at Bar-Ilan University.


It was a longer sabbatical visit that began in late 2000 that increased her commitment to working in Israel. Five days after Foa’s arrival, the second intifada broke out and Foa found herself in intense demand to train local professionals to deal with the rapidly multiplying cases of PTSD among both soldiers and civilians. Since then, Foa has purchased an apartment in Tel Aviv and now visits for two months out of every year.


Still, it is with the U.S. military where the challenge, or perhaps better put, the opportunity to heal, is the greatest. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has put her protocol into wide use. About 2,000 therapists have been trained since 2008.


Beyond her in-person training and clinical work with PTSD (she also deals with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Foa is a prolific researcher; according to one count, her writings have been cited an astounding 13,000 times. She received an award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Clinical Psychology from the American Psychological Association; a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies; and is the only Israeli on Time Magazine's 2010 list of the "100 Most Influential People in the World.”


Despite her many achievements, she remains modest. “I didn’t set out to have a glorious career,” she says. “What’s important is that I can make a contribution to the field. If I had the choice to start all over again, I’d do the same thing.” Hundreds of thousands of PTSD patients are grateful that Foa made that choice in the first place, one that started over three decades ago at Bar-Ilan University.