Therapy And Other Treatments For PTSD

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop after a person has gone through a traumatic event, and it typically has four main types of symptoms that can include intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. 

Several types of therapy that can help with PTSD symptoms may include cognitive behavioral therapy, stress inoculation therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, present-centered therapy, and cognitive processing therapy. Medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, may also be prescribed by a licensed medical professional to manage symptoms of PTSD. To get started with therapy and receive the help you deserve for this mental illness, you may connect with a therapist in person or through an online therapy platform.

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Therapy can alleviate PTSD symptoms

Common symptoms that arise after traumatic experiences

Post-traumatic stress disorder typically develops due to traumatic experiences. While many experiences, including those that affect adults and children, may result in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. Some examples include trauma from childhood, undergoing a serious injury, or surviving a life-threatening situation. Some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may develop within a few weeks or a month after a traumatic event, but other symptoms can take years to emerge. PTSD in teens is a critical concern, and parents or guardians should intervene as soon as signs are noticed.

In general, there are four main groups of PTSD symptoms:

Intrusive memories

Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Recurring and involuntary memories of the traumatic event
  • Continually reliving the event in question
  • Nightmares regarding said event
  • Severe anxiety or other negative thoughts, feelings (some who experience PTSD feel guilty, shameful, etc.), or physical reactions (increased heart rate, etc.) when exposed to a reminder of the traumatic experience

Avoidance

Symptoms of avoidance can include the following:

  • Avoiding all places, people, or situations which may remind one of the traumatic event
  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the event

Negative changes in mood

Negative mood changes may include the following:

  • Despair or hopelessness about the future
  • Negative thoughts or feelings about oneself; low self-esteem
  • Repressed memories regarding the traumatic experience
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feelings of emotional numbness
  • Impaired ability to experience joy

Changes in physical and emotional reactions

Changes in physical and emotional reactions can include:

  • Being easily frightened (“jumpy”)
  • Persistent vigilance against danger and potential threats
  • Reckless and self-destructive behavior, such as driving too fast or engaging in the abuse of illicit drugs and other substances
  • Issues with sleep or getting enough rest
  • Difficulty eating or adhering to a healthy diet
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Irritability and hair-trigger temper
  • Feelings of guilt or shame regarding the traumatic event
Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms can be managed with a combination of trauma-focused therapy treatments and medications. The use of any medical drug, including antidepressants like sertraline, should always be supervised by a doctor. You can talk to your doctor about any possible side effects these medications may have. 

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Therapy options for post-traumatic stress disorder

The following are some varieties of trauma therapy treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. These therapies are backed by strong research and are likely to appear in a clinician’s guide. Some of these PTSD treatments may take the form of either individual therapy or PTSD group therapy. In addition to individual or group therapy, those experiencing PTSD may also benefit from a treatment plan that includes attending a PTSD support group. People respond differently to different types of therapy for PTSD, so don’t be afraid to try more than one approach.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Unlike some other forms of cognitive therapy, which often spend much time analyzing the events that caused a mental health issue and the feelings surrounding it, cognitive behavioral therapy (which you may have heard called “talk therapy”) tends to focus on developing effective strategies to help the client regain control over their life and reduce anxiety. CBT treatments traditionally occur over 12 to 16 weekly sessions.

A therapist practicing a form of psychotherapy like CBT may methodically break down the causes of the client's emotions and help them to fully understand that experiencing the trauma was not their fault and that there is no need to feel guilt or shame regarding those events. Much like those participating in other forms of therapy, CBT patients may learn to evaluate their thoughts and feelings and replace the negative with the positive. This part of CBT can help reduce the anxiety and depression associated with traumatic events. This type of treatment is mostly used by the therapist for complex post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other anxiety disorders.

Stress inoculation training

A person can also experience relief with stress inoculation training (SIT). This type of CBT can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder or complex PTSD, learn how to cope with traumatic events and manage their symptoms.

SIT has strong research support as a treatment for PTSD. Studies show it can significantly reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression in people with PTSD and other mental health conditions.

Prolonged exposure therapy

People with post-traumatic stress disorder may avoid situations, activities, and thoughts that remind them of a dangerous or fearful life event or the traumatic experience that happened, which can prevent them from living their life to the fullest and negatively affect them in other ways.

Prolonged exposure therapy, or repeatedly discussing a traumatic event with a mental health professional, can gradually decrease the intensity of the feelings associated with it and make them seem less overwhelming.

The method utilized in prolonged exposure therapy is typically called gradual exposure. This process may not be easy, but it can offer a road to eventual recovery.

EMDR therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR therapy, is generally an eight-phase treatment that can help those affected by PTSD process traumatic events and resolve lingering emotional, mental, and bodily distress connected to said trauma.

This PTSD treatment can even be useful for those who experienced trauma long before they were able to verbalize or truly understand what was happening. Among treatment methods for processing or reprocessing, EMDR is often considered especially useful for those who have a hard time talking about their traumatic experiences.

During EMDR therapy, the patient usually relives triggering experiences while the therapist directs their attention using guided eye movements.

The back-and-forth movement of the eyes can mimic the processing response our brains go through during REM sleep and may allow the client to be exposed to the trauma or thoughts without having a strong psychological reaction. Over time, this may allow them to process traumatic memories, lessening the impact that the memories or thoughts once had.

EMDR can improve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly those related to intrusive memories and avoidance, and decrease negative feelings associated with the traumatic event.

Present-centered therapy

Present-centered therapy (PCT) is typically a time-limited PTSD treatment that usually focuses on helping patients understand and identify the PTSD symptoms that may affect their ability to function. Treatment with PCT may involve homework for patients; for example, patients may be asked to complete problem-solving and coping skills problems, which have the potential to help them gain control over their condition.

Cognitive processing therapy

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) can be similar to CBT in that they both normally focus on helping patients transform their thought patterns from negative to positive. But, where CBT tends to be broadly applicable as a treatment for many conditions, CPT tends to be exclusively focused on post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Therapy can alleviate PTSD symptoms

Online options for PTSD therapy after a traumatic event

If you’re considering treatment for PTSD, online therapy can be a reachable and convenient option. If you have difficulty leaving your home or live in a remote area, online therapy may offer options you might not have otherwise had. Online therapy also tends to be more affordable than traditional therapy.

As we mentioned above, CBT can be a common therapy for PTSD. It tends to also be one of the most well-studied therapy options for treating PTSD online. U.S. Veterans Affairs has studied whether patients respond effectively to online CBT compared to traditional in-person therapy. One recent study looked at 132 veterans and found that delivering CBT online can be as good as conducting therapy in person. 

Takeaway

Post-traumatic stress disorder can have a variety of challenging symptoms, potentially including avoidance, negative changes in mood, intrusive memories, and changes in emotional and physical reactions. There can be many therapy approaches that may effectively treat post-traumatic stress disorder, including present-centered therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, stress inoculation training, cognitive behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and cognitive processing therapy. A doctor may also prescribe certain medications to treat PTSD symptoms, such as anti-anxiety medications. Please don’t hesitate to get the mental and emotional support you deserve by seeking out a therapist in your local area or connecting with a licensed mental health professional online.

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