PTSD Treatment: Taking Control Of Your Trauma

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 14, 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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An estimated 6% of the US population will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. PTSD is a mental illness characterized by persistent thoughts related to a traumatic event(s) that a person has experienced or witnessed. These thoughts and memories often lead to debilitating anxiety and fear as well as several other emotional and physical symptoms that can interfere with daily life and well-being. That said, treatment for PTSD is available. We’ll outline some of the most commonly recommended options for treatment here.

You can overcome PTSD symptoms

What causes post-traumatic stress disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder will develop in some people after witnessing or experiencing trauma or a specific traumatic event. Examples include situations like war, a natural disaster, a serious accident, sexual assault, abuse, or other life-threatening or disturbing events.

Who can PTSD affect?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, around half of people will experience a traumatic event at least once in their lives, but most won’t develop PTSD. Researchers suspect that there are many potential factors that impact whether a person may develop PTSD after the experience of past trauma, from genetics to previous life stressors. 

In other words, developing or not developing posttraumatic stress disorder is not a matter of strength or will; it’s out of a person’s control. That said, there are some resilience factors that might help reduce the likelihood that someone could develop PTSD after trauma, such as having a strong social support network and using other effective coping mechanisms.

Aside from these, some of the factors involved in whether a person may develop PTSD after a traumatic experience include:

  • How long the trauma lasted (e.g., as a single traumatic event or in the form of repeated or prolonged trauma)
  • If the individual was injured during/because of the trauma
  • If a specific type of trauma was experienced, since some have a higher likelihood of causing PTSD than others (e.g., combat or sexual assault)

Although there are official guidelines for diagnosing an individual with PTSD, no definitive diagnostic procedure can yet determine who will develop PTSD and why.

Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD can vary somewhat from person to person. That said, an individual with this condition will generally experience persistent stress and at least some physical and emotional reactions from each of the following categories. 

Reliving or “re-experiencing” the event:

  • Frequently experiencing an intrusive memory of the event
  • Nightmares/night terrors related to memories of the event
  • Flashbacks to the event

Avoidance behaviors:

  • Avoiding situations that remind them of the event
  • Avoiding talking or thinking of the event whatsoever
  • Not discussing how they feel about the event

Negative thoughts, feelings, and mood:

  • Increasingly negative thoughts about self or others
  • Feelings of guilt or shame about the event
  • Avoiding activities once enjoyed
  • A heightened sense of paranoia and the belief that the world is dangerous (e.g., no one can be trusted)
  • A sense of emotional numbness
  • Inability to feel happiness


  • Jitteriness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Anticipation of danger
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Emotional reactions like sudden anger
  • Extreme irritability
  • An exaggerated startle response
  • Reckless behavior
  • Misusing substances like alcohol to cope with symptoms

A person experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder may begin to exhibit symptoms immediately after a traumatic event, or they may not develop them until months or even years later. A diagnosis of PTSD will generally be considered by a clinician once symptoms have lasted for at least a month, though individuals are generally encouraged to seek support as soon as they notice them.


Treatment for PTSD

Clinical practice guidelines for treating PTSD usually involve some form of trauma therapy, though the particular modality suggested for a given individual can vary. Medication for PTSD might sometimes be recommended as well to help control symptoms. Lifestyle changes like exercising and eating nutritious foods may also help improve the efficacy of other methods. 

Psychotherapy—also known as “talk therapy" or talking therapy—involves regular sessions where the individual speaks with a mental health professional about the traumatic event they experienced, the symptoms they’re living with, and/or other aspects of their emotional and mental health. Sessions of these evidence-based treatment options designed to manage symptoms may take place one on one or in support group therapy settings.

Of all talk therapy modalities, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been suggested by research to be one of the most effective methods of treatment for PTSD and trauma. In a typical CBT session, the mental health professional and the person with PTSD will spend time talking through any distorted and unhelpful beliefs the person may have about themselves, the trauma, or others and learning to shift these beliefs in a healthier, more realistic direction.

There are also a few specialized treatments that qualify as CBT subtypes which may also be used to treat PTSD, including cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, present-centered therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. See below for a brief description of each of these types.  

Cognitive processing therapy (CPT)

CPT is one of the trauma therapies in which a qualified therapist teaches their client new skills to help them understand how the traumatic event changed or altered their thoughts or emotions regarding the event. Changing how you think about the evente may change how you feel about it, which could help reduce symptoms. A meta-analysis of research on the topic suggests that individuals who participated in CPT showed significantly better treatment outcomes than those who received placebo treatments.

Prolonged exposure therapy

Prolonged exposure therapy, also known simply as exposure therapy, is a method in which a client will be gradually guided by a trained professional through repeated talks or writings about their trauma until the memories that were once debilitating no longer have such a strong effect. This process can help the client gain a stronger sense of control over their trauma. One study in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that just five sessions of either CPT or exposure therapy may be effective in treating PTSD.

Present-centered therapy (PCT)

Present-centered therapy (PCT) is considered a non-trauma-focused treatment for PTSD. It looks less at the past and more at the present, although it may still involve exposure, cognitive restructuring, or other techniques found in traditional CBT methods. Focusing less on the trauma itself may help reduce the client drop-out rates sometimes seen in trauma-focused CBT treatments. That said, one study suggests that PCT may not be as effective as trauma-focused treatments in reducing PTSD symptoms.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, is one of the PTSD treatments in which the client is instructed to focus on a light that blinks from left to right or their therapist’s hands moving from left to right while talking about their experience. As the object moves, so should the client’s eyes. It’s thought that this simple exercise may aid the brain in working through the traumatic experience and reducing the intensity of the emotions connected to those memories. Researchers believe the technique’s effectiveness may be related to the back-and-forth movement our eyes exhibit during REM sleep.

EMDR has strong research support for managing PTSD. For instance, one 2018 study on the topic suggests that this treatment may help reduce PTSD symptoms and other related effects.

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You can overcome PTSD symptoms

Supportive habits to help you manage PTSD symptoms

Seeking professional support for PTSD symptoms is recommended for anyone experiencing them. If you’re looking for ways to take more control of your symptoms in tandem with engaging in professional treatment, you might consider adopting some of these healthy habits:

  • Connect with friends and family. Maintaining strong social connections is associated with potentially improved mental health in general. Although it may be tempting to self-isolate when you’re experiencing symptoms of PTSD, spending time with people you love and trust may be helpful.
  • Find ways to relax. The nervous system of a person with PTSD is frequently on high alert due to the trauma they’ve experienced, so practicing relaxation techniques could make a difference. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and spending time in nature are some examples.
  • Exercise. Research suggests that regular cardiovascular exercise shows promise in reducing PTSD symptoms. It may also help improve emotional control, improve sleep, promote relaxation, and provide a way to meet new people.
  • Avoid bottling up your feelings. In addition to speaking with a therapist, you might also keep a journal or express yourself through art. Keeping your feelings bottled up can cause additional stress and act as a barrier to healing.
  • Help others. Some research suggests that getting involved in volunteer work or other projects aimed at helping others may help improve the emotional health of those living with PTSD.

Connecting with a mental health professional about PTSD symptoms

There is currently no cure for PTSD. However, like most mental illnesses, symptoms can be greatly reduced with treatments administered and monitored by a qualified professional. In most cases, symptoms can be reduced to a degree where an individual can function healthily.

If you’re ready to take control over your trauma and get the help you deserve, meeting with a therapist is typically recommended. They can help you find methods and coping skills that work for you. If you face barriers to seeking traditional in-person support, such as a lack of trauma-informed providers nearby or symptoms that make it difficult to leave the house, you might consider exploring online therapy instead. This format allows you to meet with a licensed therapist remotely via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging.

Studies evaluating the effectiveness of various types of online treatments for PTSD are ongoing. However, research so far does suggest that internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy may be an effective alternative to in-person CBT for individuals experiencing PTSD symptoms. 


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness that can develop in some people after they witness or experience a traumatic event. If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s recommended that you meet with a mental health professional for evaluation and treatment advice. Some common treatment options include cognitive behavioral therapy, narrative exposure therapy, and exposure therapy. Engaging in healthy habits like connecting socially with others and exercising may also help you take control of your trauma as you engage in professional treatment. 
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