How Trauma Therapy Works

If you or someone you love has experienced trauma, the content and descriptive information featured in this article may be triggering. For mental health resources, including a list of links and hotline numbers, see our National Helpline Database.

Trauma-focused therapy, trauma-informed care, or trauma therapy is a form of psychotherapy (talk therapy) designed to manage the impact of traumatic events on people's lives. Trauma therapy helps people process traumatic events and the lasting experience of trauma that may follow those events.

A traumatic event is any event in a person's life that they experience as life-threatening, abusive, frightening, or dangerous. A person can also be traumatized from witnessing traumatic events. These events may permanently impact a person's psychological and emotional functioning.

This article discusses the types and benefits of trauma therapy.

Empathic therapist listens to a client in session

SDI Productions / Getty Images

What Is Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy focuses on helping people with a past experience of trauma or a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manage their traumatic experiences.

Typically, a trauma therapist has additional training in trauma and will use skills and strategies that are designed to help people overcome the effects of traumatic events without re-traumatizing.

When Is It Time to See a Trauma Therapist?

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

  • Repeated flashbacks
  • Insomnia or trouble sleeping
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Isolation or other symptoms that indicate trauma is impacting your daily life

What Trauma Therapy Can Help With

People seek trauma therapy for any number of different issues. Some of the reasons people might need trauma-informed therapy include:

When Trauma Becomes PTSD

It's important to note that trauma does not always lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. When anyone experiences a traumatic event, this sets off emotional, physical, and brain-based responses. If this continues beyond a month timespan, and you experience flashbacks, nightmares, or any symptoms that are causing significant distress or dysfunction, see a healthcare provider about PTSD. A diagnosis of PTSD often occurs when people have experienced chronic trauma, such as first responders, or who have a past history of trauma.

Types of Trauma Therapy Treatments

There are many types of trauma therapy treatments. Evidence-based treatments have research evidence supporting their effectiveness. The following are a few of the main types of evidence-based treatments.

Prolonged Exposure (PE)

Prolonged exposure (PE) is a treatment in which a person is gradually exposed to their trauma-related memories, fears, emotions, and feelings about the event(s) 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.

PE is strongly recommended by the American Psychological Association as a first-line intervention for PTSD. In one study, 71% of participants experienced a decrease in PTSD symptoms with PE treatment.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is a trauma-focused therapy designed to treat PTSD. It helps patients challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma. Writing a detailed account of the traumatic event allows patients to re-conceptualize the event to reduce its impact on one's current life.

Patients typically meet with a therapist for about 12 sessions. 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 relationship between them. A trauma-focused therapist might help a client understand how they are thinking about their trauma and how to shift it into more helpful thinking.

CBT usually takes 12 to 16 sessions. This treatment is strongly recommended by the APA for the treatment of PTSD.

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

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed as a treatment for PTSD. It involves processing the memory and the way it is stored in the brain, which reduces problematic triggers and symptoms.

During this therapy, rhythmic eye movements are combined with focus on memories of the trauma. EMDR usually involves six to 12 weekly or twice-weekly sessions.

Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy (NET) focuses on the stories people tell themselves about their lives, which impacts their well-being and how they view themselves.

With the help of a therapist who is actively listening, offering connection and positive feedback, the patient creates a chronological narrative of their life, including both traumatic experiences and positive experiences. This helps reframe how they perceive their life and memories overall.

Treatments That May Also Help Trauma

There are some complementary and alternative treatments that may also be helpful for people with trauma:

  • Somatic therapy: This is a body-centered therapy designed to heal trauma stored in the body and help with stress disorders.
  • Acupuncture: Part of traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture with a trained practitioner is designed to restore balance within the body's systems.
  • Clinical hypnosis: Under the care of a clinically-trained provider, hypnotherapy allows trauma survivors to process trauma in a controlled way.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): MBCT incorporates cognitive therapies with the concepts of mindfulness meditation.

Trauma and the Mind-Body Connection

Trauma is not just experienced emotionally but in the body as well. During a traumatic event, the mind and body become activated. For some people, after the threat has passed, the mind and body will return to normal. For others, hyperarousal and hyperreactivity remain and become chronic. The chronic stress response can dysregulate the stress system in the body, causing stress-related physical conditions to develop, such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and high blood pressure.

Benefits of Trauma Therapy

Traumatic experiences can impact a person's life and relationships, as well as cause difficulties at work, school, and in social settings. Trauma therapy can improve quality of life.

Although it can be challenging to face those difficult events, with support and psychotherapy, symptoms can lessen over time.

Some other benefits of trauma therapy include:

  • Learn coping skills to handle distorted or negative thoughts and feelings
  • Reframe the traumatic experience and make some sense of it
  • Improve close relationships and connections with people
  • Reduce irritability, anger, frustration, and increase peace of mind
  • Eliminate or reduce triggers and symptoms of PTSD

How Effective Is Trauma Therapy?

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

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

Help Is Available

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 call 1-800-662-4357 for more information on how to find support and treatment options specific to your geographic area.

Summary

Trauma-informed therapy helps people overcome the effects of traumatic events. It can be especially beneficial for people 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.

A Word From Verywell

Trauma is a significant health issue. It's important to acknowledge your own traumatic experiences so you can get the help you need to process your trauma. You can start by finding a therapist who specializes in trauma that you feel comfortable connecting with.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does trauma affect the brain?

    When a person experiences trauma, it triggers heightened activity in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. This is involved in the regulation of emotions and memory processing. One study indicated the amygdala may be slow to recover from high-intensity trauma, so people may have heightened reactions to everyday stimuli. The findings in the study suggest that there may be long-term effects in the brain from trauma exposure, even in people who seem to recover and don't develop PTSD.

  • What’s the best way to process trauma?

    There are effective ways to process trauma. Researchers and clinicians have found these suggestions can help:

    • Seeking emotional support from family, friends, and mental health professionals
    • Processing your feelings about traumatic events
    • Prioritizing self-care and doing things you enjoy
    • Being patient with yourself
  • Why is trauma therapy so difficult?

    Trauma therapy can be challenging. However, living with unprocessed trauma can be very emotionally debilitating. At first, looking into past traumatic experiences can cause symptoms of trauma to surface. One study found that those who experienced an increase in symptoms experienced significant improvement by the end of treatment.

  • What other methods are there for overcoming trauma?

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

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16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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