Are There PTSD Treatments That Can Improve My Well-Being?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated July 31, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Have you been experiencing difficulty coping with distressing feelings and sensations after a frightening, damaging, or disturbing event? If so, you may want to consider seeking out therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people may be reluctant to use this option, hoping that their symptoms will go away on their own. Others may have trouble believing that simply talking to a therapist could be enough to relieve their distress. However, a substantial and growing body of research suggests that psychotherapy can be beneficial to people coping with the aftermath of traumatic events. 

You don’t necessarily have to have a diagnosis to benefit from counseling following a shocking experience, either. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and cognitive therapy may all be options for those with PTSD, and these forms of treatment may be accessed in person or online.

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Therapy Can Help You Overcome PTSD.

Is It Normal To Experience Stress After A Traumatic Event?

Some people have trouble believing that the difficulties they’re experiencing are worth discussing with a mental health professional. They may be worried about seeming like they’re making too big of a deal out of what happened to them. Many still think of PTSD as a condition primarily associated with combat veterans or victims of terror attacks. They may feel that their traumatic experience is “too minor” by comparison and doesn’t warrant a discussion with a therapist. 

But past research and current clinical standards suggest that the symptoms of PTSD can occur due to a wide range of events. For example, exposure to the threat of serious injury, sexual assault, or death can be traumatizing even if you don’t experience physical harm. It can also be possible to develop PTSD when a harmful event happens to a close friend or family. People who are frequently exposed to the aftermath of violence or catastrophe, such as emergency workers, may find themselves experiencing PTSD symptoms from repeated emotional stress.

Clinical research suggests that a delayed response may be fairly common among people with PTSD. Some people may experience only minor symptoms in the immediate wake of a traumatic event but find themselves experiencing severe stress and panic six months later.

How Do You Know If You Have PTSD?

PTSD can affect individuals of all ages, including both adults and children, following exposure to a traumatic event. A definitive diagnosis of PTSD can only be made by a licensed medical doctor or mental health professional. The following signs or symptoms may be indicators that it could be worth consulting with a practitioner:

  • Recurring unwanted and stressful memories of the traumatic event
  • Frequent nightmares related to the inciting incident
  • Severe or prolonged anxiety, fear, or aversion in response to things that remind you of what happened
  • Physiological responses, such as sweating, dizziness, nausea, and a racing pulse when exposed to reminders of the event
  • Dissociative reactions, also known as “flashbacks,” in which sensory or emotional details from the event intrude into your present-day awareness
  • Uncharacteristic emotional reactions, such as explosive anger, startling easily, impulsivity, or sleep disturbance
  • Hypervigilance, or constantly feeling on alert for danger
  • Persistent negative emotions, such as depression, detachment, fear, or shame
  • Persistent lack of positive emotions
  • Taking extreme measures to avoid things associated with your traumatic event

Perhaps the best way to decide whether you should seek help for your symptoms is to ask yourself if they’re having a noticeably negative impact on your life. Part of the standard diagnostic assessment for PTSD (and most mental health disorders) is the presence of significant distress, impairment, or disruption of normal activities. Whether you have PTSD or live with another type of difficulty, it’s likely worth addressing if it’s significantly affecting your well-being. 

Experiencing PTSD can also increase the risk of developing other mental health conditions, particularly substance abuse problems. Individuals with PTSD may turn to alcohol or drugs as a means of self-medicating, attempting to alleviate the emotional pain, distressing memories, or sleep disturbances associated with their trauma. However, this coping mechanism can lead to a vicious cycle, as substance abuse may worsen PTSD symptoms and make recovery more challenging. 

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Medication for PTSD

In some cases, prescription drugs may be prescribed by a healthcare provider to help manage symptoms. Different types of drugs are available to help reduce anxiety, stabilize mood, and improve sleep quality. Some of the most common medications for PTSD include antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). However, it is important to be aware of possible side effects, which can affect individuals differently. 

Can Therapy Help With PTSD?

Though the symptoms of PTSD can feel difficult to manage, substantial and long-lasting relief is possible through psychotherapy. There are several evidence-based psychotherapy treatments for PTSD, many of which have high success rates. Therapy may be conducted in weekly sessions and can be used alongside other treatments for PTSD, such as medication prescribed by a doctor.

According to a comprehensive review published in Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, substantial percentages of patients undergoing psychotherapy improved so much that they no longer met the criteria for PTSD. Many others experienced major reductions in the severity of their symptoms, improving their quality of life considerably. The American Psychological Association strongly recommends four main types of psychotherapy for PTSD treatment.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This type of therapy is designed to help you recognize unhelpful ways of thinking and lessen the severity of negative emotions by looking at them more objectively. In CBT, participants often identify specific goals and work with therapists on treatment plans to reach those goals. You may be encouraged to write down and think through your thoughts and feelings surrounding your traumatic experience, with your therapist offering guidance on how to reframe them. Researchers have concluded that CBT can be a “safe and effective treatment” for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

Based on the same principles as CBT, cognitive processing therapy (CPT) was developed specifically to assist people in working through the aftermath of disruptive, shocking, or harmful life events. While some of the techniques may overlap with CBT, a trained therapist in cognitive processing therapy for PTSD will often focus on the maladaptive beliefs surrounding a specific traumatic event. In discussions with their therapists, patients may attempt to identify and shift unhealthy ways of thinking that could be preventing them from moving past their negative experiences. Numerous studies have shown that CPT is effective in treating PTSD.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)

Some people with PTSD may avoid thinking about what happened to them because the memories are so stressful and painful, which could make it difficult to process and move past their traumatic memories. Prolonged exposure therapy aims to address this problem by having participants relive their experiences in a controlled, relaxing setting, with emotional support from a therapist. The patient may also be encouraged to desensitize themselves to their triggers by gradually re-encountering places, people, and scenarios that remind them of their trauma. A 2010 meta-analysis concluded that PE is a highly effective treatment for PTSD.

Cognitive Therapy

It can be easy to confuse cognitive therapy with CBT, and there may be some similarities between these approaches in theory and practice. But there may be some important differences as well. While CBT may include recommendations for modifying patients’ behavior to help them overcome their trauma, cognitive therapy often limits its focus to changing habits of thought that can cause people to overestimate threats and dangers after trauma. Despite the seemingly narrower focus, there’s evidence that cognitive therapy for PTSD can be highly effective.

Other Types Of Therapy

Other types of psychotherapy may also help with PTSD, though the evidence for them is more limited than the four therapy types discussed above. They may include the following:

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): A technique in which the patient may recall a traumatic event while experiencing specific types of sensory stimulation designed to decrease their emotional response to the memory. Some studies indicate that it can be effective for PTSD.

  • Brief Eclectic Psychotherapy (BEP): Developed primarily to treat police officers involved in shootings, BEP often combines elements of CBT with more traditional psychodynamic therapy to address feelings of guilt and shame associated with trauma. Evidence suggests that it can work well for some people with PTSD.

  • Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET): This method generally encourages participants to place their traumatic experiences within the context of their larger life stories to achieve a greater sense of personal wholeness. It’s been found effective for those with PTSD who have experienced large-scale conflict and violence, including refugees.

  • Stress Inoculation Training: This approach aims to teach individuals various coping skills to manage their anxiety and stress related to the traumatic event. These skills can include relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and cognitive restructuring. 

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Therapy Can Help You Overcome PTSD.

Can Therapy After Trauma Prevent PTSD?

Some researchers have investigated whether psychotherapeutic interventions can help people who have experienced trauma avoid severe PTSD symptoms. The evidence on this topic is mixed.

Certain types of interventions, such as group discussions or “debriefing” following traumatic experiences, may increase the likelihood of posttraumatic stress. This could be because discussing traumatic events in their immediate aftermath anchors them more strongly in the mind. 

On the other hand, there is some evidence in favor of a type of intervention known as “brief cognitive behavior therapy.” This study usually involves one-on-one discussions with a counselor or therapist aimed at evaluating and processing feelings of distress. It may be most advisable for people who are already experiencing acute stress related to a traumatic event. By talking with a therapist, it may be possible to address these symptoms before they become severe and persistent enough to constitute PTSD.

Support Groups for PTSD Recovery 

Support groups can be an essential part of the recovery process for individuals with PTSD. These groups provide a safe space for sharing experiences, learning coping strategies, and connecting with others who have similar experiences. Support groups can be particularly helpful for those dealing with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or other related issues that may co-occur with PTSD. Attending support groups can supplement individual therapy and help individuals feel less isolated in their recovery journey.

By connecting with others who have experienced similar situations, individuals can gain emotional support, learn coping strategies, and foster a sense of belonging. Support groups can complement formal treatments for PTSD, such as therapy or medication, and are often led by trained facilitators, mental health professionals, or peers with lived experience of PTSD. Various organizations, including non-profits, community centers, and mental health clinics, host PTSD support groups, making them accessible to a wide range of individuals seeking help in their recovery process.

Online Therapy For PTSD May Be A Helpful Option

PTSD group therapy is considered effective in reducing the symptoms of PTSD. However, this may not be the best option for everyone. Hence, one-on-one therapy with a licensed mental health expert can also be a good option. Many of the recommended therapies described above can be conducted over the internet as well as in clinical settings. 

People with PTSD or other mental illnesses may be reluctant to seek treatment in person due to difficulties such as long wait times, challenges finding local mental health providers, and fears about the perceived stigma of mental health disorders. Talking with therapists over the web from the comfort of home can be more convenient. It may also be more comfortable for those whose feelings of panic and anxiety can be triggered by travel or medical settings. 

Randomized controlled trials of online therapy for PTSD have demonstrated that it can be at least as effective as in-person counseling. The linked study involved 96 participants and demonstrated “large effect sizes and sustained treatment effects.” The authors also noted that most patients could develop a “stable and positive online therapeutic relationship” with treatment providers, improving the success of this method. 


Though PTSD can feel distressing and debilitating, research indicates that psychotherapy can provide substantial relief. Mental health professionals can offer a wide variety of helpful methods for managing, reframing, and reducing your stress response to psychological triggers. 

With a clinician's guide, PTSD treatment can help individuals regain control over their lives. Cognitive therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, prolonged exposure therapy, and cognitive processing therapy may all be effective options for those living with PTSD. For those who have reservations about face-to-face treatment, online therapy programs may be a convenient and effective alternative.

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