What Is Trauma-Focused Therapy?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated September 5, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Free, private support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Trauma-focused therapy focuses on helping individuals, including trauma survivors, who have experienced traumatic events, whether in childhood or adulthood. This trauma-informed approach to mental health care embraces an understanding of the emotional, neurological, psychological, social, and biological effects of trauma. Trauma-informed therapists promote healing by ensuring physical and emotional safety, and by providing mental health services tailored to each individual's trauma history.

Have You Experienced Trauma Or Its Effects?

What Is Trauma?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) defines trauma as “exposure to actual or threatened events involving death, serious injury, or sexual violation in one (or more) of the following ways:

  • Directly experiencing the events.
  • Witnessing the events in person as they occur to others.
  • Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to adverse details of the events."

Trauma can come about after someone experiences physical, emotional, or psychological danger or harm. Even being close to or witnessing these sorts of experiences can lead to the development of trauma. 

Common examples of potentially traumatic experiences may include:

  • Childhood neglect
  • Sudden separation from a loved one
  • Poverty and food insecurity 
  • Violence in the community
  • Living with someone who experiences unmanaged substance abuse and mental health disorders 
  • Experiences of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse. *

*If you or a loved one is experiencing or has experienced relationship abuse or domestic violence, please seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is free and offers support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). You can also text “START” to 88788 or use the live chat option on the website at TheHotline.org. 

Another resource is the Crisis Text Line, which can connect anyone in crisis with a crisis counselor; text “HELLO” to 741741 from the U.S. anytime, day or night.

What Are The Effects Of Trauma?

Regardless of its origin, trauma can be a pervasive problem that can leave long-term effects on a person’s functioning and/or emotional, physical, or social well-being. The effects of trauma can be immediate and long-term. Trauma-informed care focuses on addressing these effects, which may include:

  • Shock and denial
  • Unpredictable emotions
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • An inability to feel comfortable
  • Physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches
  • Confusion
  • Exhaustion and fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Risky behavior, such as substance abuse or use of illicit substances, alcohol, or tobacco

The toll that trauma takes on an individual’s well-being can be significant. However, people who have had traumatic experiences can also be highly resilient and develop a sense of perseverance and strength in the face of challenges. Healing from trauma and living a fulfilling life can be a reality with the help of a trauma-informed therapist and a trauma-informed approach to therapy, which focuses on emotional safety and treating trauma effectively.


What Are The Effects Of Childhood Trauma?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Childhood trauma is often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). An ACE can have serious long-term effects on the developing brains of children. Research has shown that the more a child is exposed to stress and trauma, the greater their risk of experiencing chronic health conditions and risky behaviors. Divorce can also be a traumatic experience for a child. It can lead to childhood PTSD, especially if a youngster lacks supervision and care. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be used as divorce therapy for children. Reunification therapy can also be applied to address parent-child contact problems that occur during divorce.

Brain development: When the brain is developing during a child’s early years, trauma can negatively impact areas of the brain responsible for cognitive functions, such as emotional control and short-term memory. During times of stress, the body releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Repeated or prolonged exposure to these hormones can be associated with poor brain development in early childhood. Exactly how the stress from trauma affects the development of the brain or DNA is not yet fully understood. 

Trauma In Adulthood

Trauma experienced in childhood can have lasting effects. The brains of adults who experienced trauma in childhood may be primed to manage consistent stress. These adults may find it is particularly challenging to respond to life’s experiences. They may be more likely to live with depression, anxiety, and problems with emotional control. This can affect functioning at school and work, relationships, and physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

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Have You Experienced Trauma Or Its Effects?

More Strategies For Managing The Effects Of Trauma

If trauma is affecting you, consider seeking help from a trauma-informed therapist or another healthcare provider trained in trauma-informed care. Also, know that there are effective ways to heal and move forward. Strategies for coping and support include:

Taking care of yourself: Self-care can be an important part of healing and managing physical and mental health concerns. Examples of self-care might include prioritizing sleep, a nutritious diet, exercise, and relaxation.

Staying connected with supportive people: Spending time with people who are caring and supportive can help with healing and comfort. 

Trying tips to interrupt negative thoughts and anxious feelings: For instance, you might try taking a walk, talking to a friend, listening to music, watching an entertaining TV show, or tackling something at home.

Avoiding self-medicating, such as misusing drugs and alcohol: Trying to numb feelings with the help of substances can harm physical and mental health in the long run, which overall may interfere with recovery.

Resources from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and other organizations dedicated to mental health care.

How Online Therapy Can Help With Trauma

Trauma-focused therapy is typically conducted by trauma informed therapists who understand the effects of trauma and utilize compassionate therapeutic tools to address thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that may come with it. These therapists often undergo specialized trauma training and follow trauma informed therapy practices, ensuring that they provide effective support for their clients.

Trauma therapy aims to be safe and supportive so that a sense of safety can be restored. Avoiding re-traumatization is a priority in trauma-focused therapy. A therapist and client can work together to understand the traumatic experience in a safe way, often without retelling details of painful traumatic experiences until the client feels safe and ready to do so.

Exactly which techniques are used to achieve these goals can depend on the situation, the therapist, and the person participating in therapy. Trauma-based therapy might also involve working to understand triggers and boosting the client’s sense of self-worth, among other things.

Now, you may ask, "Is therapy right for me?" In therapy, trauma-informed therapists assume that you may look at your own resiliency and strengths to manage the effects of trauma. Likewise, you may learn ways to view the world and your place in it more positively. A mental health professional with the right knowledge can help you learn effective strategies to manage the challenges you might encounter, confront trauma, and begin to move past it.

Online therapy with BetterHelp makes it particularly easy to connect with a professional with the training necessary to help you work through trauma. Research shows that online therapy can be just as effective as traditional in-person therapy for treating symptoms of mental health disorders and the effects of trauma. One study found that online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can improve symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, including PTSD. 


If you have experienced trauma, you don’t have to face it alone. Trauma-informed therapy may lead to a significant reduction in symptoms and help you develop healthy coping skills in a safe, supportive environment. A trauma-informed approach can also help you learn to think in more compassionate and positive ways about yourself, others, and the world. Take the first step to healing from trauma and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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