How Trauma Therapy Works

The content and descriptive information in this article may be triggering if you or a loved one has experienced trauma. For mental health resources, including a list of links and helpline numbers, see our national helpline database.

Trauma-focused therapy, trauma-informed care, or trauma therapy is a type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) designed to manage the impact of traumatic events on people’s lives. Trauma therapy helps people deal with traumatic events and the lasting experience of trauma that may occur after those events.

A traumatic event is any event in a person’s life that is life-threatening, abusive, scary or dangerous. A person can also be traumatized by witnessing a traumatic event. These events can permanently affect a person’s mental and emotional functioning.

This article discusses the types and benefits of trauma treatment.

What is trauma therapy?

Trauma therapy focuses on helping people with traumatic experiences or diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manage their traumatic experiences.

Often, trauma therapists receive additional trauma training and will use skills and strategies designed to help people overcome the effects of a traumatic event without re-traumatizing.

When to see a trauma therapist?

When trauma disrupts your daily life and functioning, it may be time to seek the expertise of a trauma-aware therapist. A skilled trauma therapist may be helpful if you:

  • Flashback repeatedly
  • insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • frequent nightmares
  • Isolation or other symptoms that indicate trauma are affecting your daily life

What trauma therapy can help

People seek trauma treatment for many different problems. Some reasons people may need trauma-informed treatment include:

  • fight trauma
  • accident
  • attack or attack
  • Domestic or intimate partner violence
  • community violence
  • Natural and man-made disasters
  • medical trauma
  • Injuries, including traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • physical abuse
  • emotional or psychological abuse
  • sexual abuse or assault
  • Early childhood trauma, abuse or neglect
  • traumatic grief
  • Bullying at school or workplace
  • Witnessing trauma or experiencing secondary trauma

When trauma becomes PTSD

It is important to note that trauma does not always lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. When anyone experiences a traumatic event, it triggers emotional, physical, and brain responses. If this continues for more than a month and you experience flashbacks, nightmares, or any symptoms that cause severe distress or dysfunction, talk to your healthcare provider about PTSD. A diagnosis of PTSD usually occurs when people have experienced chronic trauma, such as first responders, or have a history of trauma in the past.

Types of Trauma Treatment

There are many types of trauma treatments. Evidence-based treatment has research evidence to support its effectiveness. Below are some of the main types of evidence-based treatments.

Prolonged exposure (PE)

Prolonged exposure (PE) is a treatment method in which a person is gradually exposed to trauma-related memories, fears, emotions, and feelings about the event to learn that these are no longer dangerous or need to be avoided. Patients typically meet with a therapist once a week for three to four months.

The American Psychological Association strongly recommends sports as a first-line intervention for PTSD. In one study, 71% of participants experienced a reduction in PTSD symptoms after PE treatment.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a trauma-focused therapy designed to treat PTSD. It helps patients challenge and change unhelpful beliefs related to trauma. Detailed documentation of a traumatic event allows patients to reconceptualize the event to reduce its impact on a person’s current life.

Patients typically meet with a therapist about 12 times. CPT is considered a first-line intervention for PTSD and is strongly recommended by the APA.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and the relationships between them. Trauma-focused therapists may help clients understand how they view their trauma and how to turn it into more helpful thinking.

CBT usually requires 12 to 16 lessons. The APA strongly recommends this treatment for PTSD.

There is also trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, or TF-CBT, which is also evidence-based. It is designed for children and adolescents, but includes their caregivers as part of treatment.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed as a treatment for PTSD. It involves processing memories and how they are stored in the brain, thereby reducing problematic triggers and symptoms.

During this treatment, rhythmic eye movements are combined with attention to traumatic memories. EMDR typically involves 6 to 12 weekly or twice-weekly meetings.

Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy (NET) focuses on people telling the stories of their lives that affect their well-being and how they see themselves.

With the help of a therapist who actively listens, provides connection, and provides positive feedback, patients chronologically recount their lives, including traumatic and positive experiences. This helps to reconstruct their overall view of life and memory.

Types of mental health treatment

May also help with trauma treatment

There are some complementary and alternative therapies that may also be helpful for trauma patients:

  • Somatic Therapy: This is a body-centered therapy designed to heal wounds stored in the body and help relieve stress disorders.
  • Acupuncture: As part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture by trained practitioners aims to restore balance within the body’s systems.
  • Clinical Hypnosis: Under the care of a clinically trained provider, hypnotherapy allows trauma survivors to deal with trauma in a controlled manner.
  • Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT): MBCT combines the concepts of cognitive therapy with mindfulness meditation.

Trauma and the mind-body connection

Trauma is not only emotional, but also physical. During a traumatic event, the mind and body are activated. For some, once the threat passes, the mind and body return to normal. For others, hyperexcitability and overreaction persist and become chronic. A chronic stress response can destabilize the body’s stress system, leading to the development of stress-related conditions such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and high blood pressure.

Benefits of Trauma Therapy

Traumatic experiences can affect a person’s life and relationships, and cause difficulties in work, school, and social settings. Trauma treatment can improve quality of life.

Although facing these difficult events can be challenging, with support and psychotherapy, symptoms will decrease over time.

Some other benefits of trauma therapy include:

  • Learn coping skills to deal with distorted or negative thoughts and feelings
  • Redefine the traumatic experience and understand it
  • Improve close relationships and connections with people
  • Reduce irritability, anger, depression and increase inner peace
  • Eliminate or reduce the triggers and symptoms of PTSD

How effective is trauma treatment?

In a 2018 study, PE, CPT, and CBT were found to be very effective.

Studies have found that 30 to 97 percent of PTSD patients treated with CPT no longer meet diagnostic criteria. For PE, the proportion of patients who no longer met the criteria ranged from 41% to 95%. For CBT, it was 61% to 82.4%.

helpful

If you or a loved one is struggling with trauma, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline online or by calling 1-800-662-4357 for information on how to find someone specific to you geographic area.

generalize

Trauma-informed therapy helps people overcome the effects of traumatic events. It is especially beneficial for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are several types of evidence-based trauma therapies and treatments that can improve a person’s quality of life.

VigorTip words

Trauma is an important health issue. It’s important to acknowledge your traumatic experience so you can get the help you need to deal with it. You can start by looking for a trauma therapist who is good at treating you feel comfortable.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does trauma affect the brain?

    When a person experiences trauma, it triggers increased activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala. This involves the regulation of emotion and memory processing. A study suggests that the amygdala may be slow to recover from high-intensity trauma, so people may be more responsive to everyday stimuli. The findings suggest that trauma exposure may have long-term effects on the brain, even in those who appear to have recovered and did not develop PTSD.

  • What’s the best way to deal with trauma?

    There are effective ways to deal with trauma. Researchers and clinicians have found these recommendations can help:

    • Seek emotional support from family, friends and mental health professionals
    • Coping with your feelings about the traumatic event
    • Prioritize self-care and doing things you love
    • be patient with yourself
  • Why is trauma treatment so difficult?

    Trauma treatment can be challenging. However, living with untreated trauma can be very emotionally debilitating. At first, looking back on past traumatic experiences may cause traumatic symptoms to surface. One study found that those who experienced an increase in symptoms experienced significant improvements at the end of treatment.

  • What other ways are there to overcome trauma?

    The treatments most highly recommended by professionals include trauma therapy and medication. Other coping methods include engaging in art and music, relaxation, yoga, journaling, mindfulness meditation, and spending time in nature.