Therapy For PTSD

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 20, 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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PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder, can occur when you have experienced trauma or have had prolonged exposure to trauma in any aspect of your life. In these cases, it may be necessary to let a therapist work with you to develop coping strategies and a treatment plan to improve symptoms and help you work through this disorder.

Can a therapist diagnose PTSD? Yes, and with the right therapy, therapy for PTSD can be successful. There are several treatment options that may be helpful for PTSD. For instance, people often seek PTSD counseling as a treatment option, and they may also see benefits from the use of anti-anxiety medications. Clinical practice guidelines recommend a combination of these treatments for the best outcomes. Keep reading for more information about who may be at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder and which treatment types are available for people who reach out for help.

iStock/Kateryna Onyshchuk
Therapy offers relief and healing from past trauma


Unlike other types of mental health conditions, the signs, symptoms, and risk factors for PTSD are quite distinct. If an individual has been exposed to traumatic experiences, whether as children or in adulthood, they may be at risk of developing PTSD or another trauma-related disorder. That is why it is critical to seek help from a therapist for complex post traumatic stress disorder. A professional clinician or therapist will be able to recognize these post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms to make a definitive diagnosis and plan to help in treatment. 
Keep in mind there are several types of useful therapies for PTSD that are evidence-based and have research studies to support them. For example, in this review of psychotherapy interventions for PTSD, several treatments, such as trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, aim to help people process traumatic memories, and recover from them. In the majority of cases, people living with PTSD find relief from the disorder after getting the right PTSD treatment for the right length of time, especially if they are experiencing flashbacks and traumatic memories or PTSD images.

Post-traumatic stress disorder statistics

Sidran Institute is a traumatic stress education and advocacy group that provides many valuable and somewhat surprising PTSD statistics and its treatment:
  • About 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lifetimes.
  • About 5% of Americans have PTSD at any one time, which equates to about 13 million people.
  • One in 13 adults will develop PTSD within their lifetime.
  • One in 10 women will get PTSD at some time in their lifetime.
  • Women are twice as likely to get PTSD than men.
Improper diagnoses and undertreatment cause those affected by this disorder to seek repeat care, which, in turn, increases the treatment costs for PTSD. The Sidran Institute has also done studies on the treatment costs associated with PTSD. Here is what they found:
  • Societies pay approximately $42.3 billion in healthcare costs. That figure encompasses psychiatric and non-psychiatric medical treatment costs, as well as medical treatments, indirect workplace costs, death-related, and prescription drug costs.
  • About 50% of treatment costs for post traumatic stress disorder are related to repeated use of healthcare services due to undiagnosed PTSD.
  • Patients with PTSD have some of the highest rates of healthcare service usage.
  • The greatest cost to society pertains to medical costs, doctor visits, and hospital visits for anxiety disorders and PTSD which costs about $23 billion every year.

Furthermore, the American Psychological Association (APA) reports that about half of all individuals that are receiving treatments for addiction or substance abuse problems also live with post traumatic stress disorder. This complicates treatment for many and increases costs of treatment. 

Risk factors
The best way to determine if you have PTSD is to schedule an appointment with a doctor, psychologist, counselor, or therapist who can provide you with a proper diagnosis. While only a licensed clinician can diagnose you with post-traumatic stress disorder, there are numerous risk factors that may lead to a diagnosis of PTSD. If you have experienced trauma, have a specific trauma memory that is frequent, or you have lived through more than one traumatic experience, you may have symptoms of PTSD that can be treated by experienced healthcare providers.

Survivors of violent acts or a traumatic event

Anyone who has been a survivor of a violent act or who has witnessed a violent act are at risk of getting PTSD. People who have been repeatedly exposed to life-threatening situations and have trauma-related memories are also at risk of acquiring post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors may have experienced traumatic events such as physical violence, rape, sexual assault or abuse, domestic violence, mugging, school shootings, and physical or verbal abuse.

Survivors of catastrophic events

Major catastrophic events can occur unexpectedly in our everyday lives. Car accidents and car fires, plane crashes and terrorist strikes, and industrial accidents place all survivors at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, natural disasters such as tornadoes, earthquakes, forest fires, and flooding cause commotion and loss of life or property which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. If you have experienced any of these occurrences and have been affected by it, you may benefit from PTSD trauma-focused counseling and medications.

Getty/Vadym Pastuk

Combat veterans and civilian survivors of war

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) tells us that between 10%-31% of veterans returned from war with PTSD, depending on which war they served in. A new study published by Clinical Psychological Science reports that soldiers who enlist in the armed forces before the age of 25 are seven times more likely to get PTSD. If you want to find out more information about this issue, you may want to refer to the VA National Center for PTSD website.

First responders

First responders, such as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, 911 dispatchers, and EMTs, are all at risk of getting job-related PTSD. For firefighters, there is a 20% rate of getting PTSD according to an International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) study.

Death and illness

PTSD also affects many people who have been given a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness and those who are undergoing invasive or lengthy medical treatments or procedures. The unexpected sudden death of close friends or family is also the type of traumatic event that can cause someone to be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.

Symptoms of PTSD

PTSD is common enough that most people have a general idea of what it is, especially as it pertains to our nation's veterans. While only a properly licensed clinician can give someone a correct diagnosis of PTSD, the following information will help you to understand how clinicians arrive at a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Clinicians begin with three categories, or "clusters" of PTSD symptoms. The clusters include:

  1. Reliving the event. Symptoms include recurring nightmares or intrusive images that occur at any time of night or day. Extreme emotional or physical reactions can accompany these symptoms including getting the chills, getting heart palpitations, or feeling a sense of uncontrollable panic. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one or more of these symptoms must be present.
  2. Avoiding reminders of the event. This symptom includes avoiding people, places, thoughts, and activities that remind you of the trauma. Avoiding thoughts and feelings can cause you to feel guilty or emotionally detached, lose interest in things you previously enjoyed, focus on unhelpful beliefs, and lose interest in daily activities. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, three or more of these symptoms must be present.
  3. Hyperarousal or being “on guard.” Symptoms in this cluster include feeling hyper-aroused, hypervigilant, constantly on guard with feelings of anger and irritation, getting enough rest or other sleep problems, having trouble concentrating, and being overly alert or easily startled. Two or more of these symptoms must be present.
PTSD treatments and diagnosis

When listing the number of symptoms in each cluster, a diagnosis of PTSD is indicated when the correct number of symptoms in each category has lasted for more than a month. Also, these symptoms cause severe obstructions at home, at work, or in the throes of daily life. Other symptoms that may not be clear until a clinician has made a diagnosis of PTSD are low self-esteem, feeling disconnected from their lives, or having relationship problems. These issues by themselves may also be indicative of some other mental health disorder. When combined with the clustered symptoms, they become added symptoms of PTSD. 

Mental health is a complicated field because many symptoms overlap. Other psychological symptoms that may be related to PTSD are depression, anxiety, and panic disorder. It is also common for physical disorders to accompany a diagnosis of PTSD. Individuals living with PTSD may complain of chronic pain, fatigue, stomach aches, respiratory ailments, headaches, muscle pain, low backaches, or heart problems. These symptoms could call for additional medications to be needed during your treatment. 

Many people living with PTSD lack proper specialized treatments or other options to alleviate their pain and discomfort, help them manage stress, or reduce mental health issues. This can cause people living with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder to engage in self-destructive behavior such as alcohol or drug abuse or experience suicidal tendencies in attempts at self-treatments and self-soothing.

Of the nearly 70% of adults who have experienced a traumatic event during their lifetime, only 20% develop PTSD. Among those who do go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, the symptoms usually surface within the first few weeks after the trauma. In rarer cases, some individuals will experience symptoms months or years later, which can be part of delayed-onset PTSD.

Hospitals like the Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic offer evidence-based therapies and treatments that can help someone living with post-traumatic stress disorder get a proper diagnosis and relief from symptoms. Some of these treatments can be completed in short-term therapy lasting weeks or months, while other treatments may require longer stays in mental health facilities. With early intervention and continuous treatment, many people living with post-traumatic stress disorder can experience significant improvements in their quality of life and manage their symptoms effectively.

Therapy offers relief and healing from past trauma
Addiction and PTSD

Stress increases the levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) which can cause a natural tranquilizing effect within the brain. Drugs and alcohol can also stimulate GABA, which puts people in a happier state of mind. People who live with PTSD often turn to drugs or alcohol as a means for dealing with symptoms associated with their traumatic event. When this happens, the body works against itself as the brain views a substance as treatment.

However, there is a downside. After prolonged drug or alcohol use, the neurotransmitters are not as easily affected, and the brain asks for more, which creates the cycle of addiction. As the effects of drugs or alcohol diminish, the effects of PTSD worsen, leading people to struggle with their mental health. Most clinicians favor treatments for addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder simultaneously. This can be completed using individual therapy or a group format.

EMDR, cognitive processing therapy, and other therapy options for PTSD
Most PTSD treatments are evidence-based, have research support, and work well for managing PTSD symptoms. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on reframing negative beliefs, and eye-movement desensitizing response (EMDR), are the most common treatment options for PTSD, and a few others work well too, such as medications. People with PTSD can even utilize a PTSD service dog to help cope with symptoms. If you or a loved one ever finds themself in a crisis, a PTSD hotline is a great resource that is available as well. Can PTSD group therapy help? Group therapy with a support group can give many benefits like developing social skills and finding your voice. However, one-on-one therapy with mental health professionals can also be an effective choice since not everyone is comfortable with group therapy.
PTSD treatments

There are many treatments available for those who live with PTSD. Often, people respond differently to different treatments, so it's crucial to find the one that works best for you. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective combination of talk therapy and behavioral therapy where clinicians spend time teaching patients how to reframe negative thinking patterns into positive thoughts. Another type of therapy that is related to this is cognitive processing therapy for PTSD. CPT is a trauma-focused treatment, that is designed to aid you in changing the way you think about the trauma you have experienced.

Present-centered therapy is another type of cognitive behavioral therapy or so-called talk therapy that may be helpful in the treatment of PTSD. It attempts to help people address situations in their daily life.

Eye-movement desensitizing response (EMDR) which is also known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), is a type of trauma therapy where repetitive back-and-forth movements of the eye that mirror REM sleep work in tandem with a clinician, who guides the patient to transform harmful thoughts into thoughts that make them feel in control and powerful. This rapid eye movement therapy is also a trauma-focused or trauma-informed therapy, where a patient is asked to focus on the memory, instead of avoiding it.

Seeking Safety is a therapy treatment that helps patients feel safe in their thinking, behavior, relationships, and emotions.

Prolonged exposure therapy (PET) is a therapy that helps the brains of individuals living with PTSD to disassociate the connection between trauma triggers (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings) and the traumatic event. This prolonged exposure therapy may be a way for a patient to gain control over their trauma and symptoms and develop a new understanding of their experiences.

Stress Inoculation Training is a type of therapy where the therapist uses exercises to help patients learn to recognize their triggers and then employ coping skills to manage the feelings that surface. Stress inoculation training treatment focuses on helping an individual grow their skills, so they can handle stress and other feelings in their lives.

Certain medications may also be prescribed for PTSD treatment, based on the symptoms and severity of symptoms that an individual experiences, following a clinician's guide. A physical exam or blood test may be required to ensure that there are no underlying health issues before starting medication treatment. 

Several different medications may be applicable for a specific patient, such as monoamine oxidase inhibitors and second-generation antipsychotics. In many cases, antidepressants are the type of medications that are prescribed, but other medications may also be prescribed for other symptoms that are present related to PTSD, targeting negative thoughts and aiding in recovery. The best medication option often depends on the patient, as possible side effects and effectiveness may vary. 

Some types of mental illness can evolve with time. If you respond effectively to a combination of medication and therapy, it's important to keep in mind that your needs may change as you progress. You should continue seeking treatment and remain in communication with your mental health providers to ensure that you are getting the best care possible. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for PTSD, so it may take some trial and error to find what works best for you.

Seeking therapy

One of the fastest and easiest ways to find therapy and other treatments for PTSD is to contact BetterHelp and ask for a clinician who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder. If you are under the care of a doctor, you can ask for a referral to a psychologist. Veterans will find therapists and many other helpful support and services through their local Veterans Affairs association. Your local mental health agency is another good way to find qualified therapists in your area.

With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist specializing in PTSD treatment, like CBT or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), in as little as 48 hours. You can meet with them from the comfort of your home on a flexible schedule and message them at any time to track your symptoms in real-time and get between-session advice. Online therapy is also more affordable than in-person therapy, which makes it more available to more people.

If you want to know for sure if you have PTSD, it is best to reach out for treatment of PTSD or help right away. There are many treatments for PTSD that are available and may help you, including cognitive therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and medications. If you are unable to meet or are having a difficulty finding a therapist, consider online therapy. Research supports the success of online therapy for PTSD-related symptoms and improved connection to resources. If you are concerned you are managing PTSD, do not hesitate to reach out for help from a licensed therapist. 

PTSD can make daily life difficult and everyday chores into challenges. If you live with PTSD, know that professional help and emotional support from a therapist may greatly improve your symptoms and allow you to live more comfortably without turning to harsh coping methods. Breathing techniques, having a healthy diet, support groups, and weekly sessions can aid in recovery by addressing negative thoughts and fostering resilience.

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