What Is Trauma Therapy And How Does It Work?

Psychological trauma can affect your life for many years after the event or situation that caused it. It isn't a problem that's easily resolved, especially if you try to do it on your own. However, talk therapy has proven valuable in helping people overcome the distress, pain, and dysfunction that come from having lived through the most overwhelmingly threatening experiences. If you're considering seeking help to get past trauma and reclaim your life, understanding trauma therapy can help you feel more comfortable starting the process.

What Is Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy is, as its name suggests, therapy that counselors use to help people overcome psychological trauma. A traumatic event is defined as one in which you perceive a threat to your life, bodily integrity, or sanity. The other component of the definition is your reaction to the event or situation. If you can cope with the event, even if it is a serious threat, it isn't trauma. Trauma happens when your ability to cope is completely overwhelmed.


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Trauma therapy is not one specific type of therapy. Instead, a variety of therapies can be used alone or together to help you deal with the trauma and move on with your life. If you seek trauma therapy, the best way to begin is to find out what type of therapy the counselor uses to treat trauma patients.

Goals of Trauma Therapy

Before you undertake any type of counseling or any endeavor at all for that matter, it's important to know what you want to get from it, what you want to accomplish, and how you want your life to look when it's over.


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The most crucial goals of trauma therapy are typically:

  • To face the reality of the past event without getting stuck in it
  • To reduce or eliminate trauma symptoms
  • To work towards shifting focus from the past to the present
  • To improve daily functioning
  • To reclaim your personal power
  • To overcome addictions associated with traumatic stress
  • To gain skills that prevent relapse

You may have unique goals of your own based on the kinds of problems you've encountered since the trauma and the kind of life you want to move towards. Talk to your counselor early on to decide what you hope to gain from your time in trauma therapy.

Types of Therapy Most Often Used for Trauma

While nearly every type of psychological therapy could be used to help with trauma, some are used more than others. Three types of therapy have been shown to help with trauma: Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Following is a discussion of each, including what each is and how it works.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT)

What It Is: Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a special type of CBT used for people who have experienced trauma. It is a talk therapy the is especially-formulated to address the thoughts associated with the traumatic experience. Typically used for children and adolescents, along with their parents, as well as adult survivors of trauma, TFCBT has been consistently proven effective at meeting the needs of people who have faced trauma. It is a short-term type of therapy that typically lasts between 8 and 25 sessions, although further therapy may be needed afterward to address secondary problems resulting from the trauma symptoms.


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How It Works: In TF-CBT, the trauma sufferer learns about trauma and its effects. If the person who has had a traumatic experience is a child or adolescent, their parent is also educated on trauma and taught parenting skills that can help them understand and interact in healthy ways with their child. Sessions may be held with the child alone, the parents alone, and the child and parents together.

The counselor teaches you relaxation techniques you can use during the therapeutic process as well as later on. The counselor prompts you to talk about the experience to help you develop a trauma narrative that organizes your thoughts about the experience. You learn how to express your feelings appropriately. The cognitive component of the treatment involves examining thoughts related to the traumatic experience and learning to adopt more helpful thought patterns.

Your counselor may suggest you revisit the location or type of location where the event happened, either in real life or through virtual reality therapy. This is done gradually, with exposure beginning slowly and more elements of the scene being added a little at a time. The exposure allows you to face the situation again, this time relying on coping skills you learn earlier in the therapy.

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

What It Is: Psychodynamic psychotherapy, a therapy developed from earlier psychoanalysis methods, is based on uncovering the content and conflicts within a person's unconscious mind. It assumes that problems develop from childhood experiences. It also takes into account the effects of interpersonal relationships on thought, emotion, and behavior. This type of therapy relies on the relationship that develops between the trauma sufferer and the therapist. The goal of this type of therapy is primarily to gain insight.


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How It Works: If you are in psychodynamic therapy, you talk about your symptoms as well as the traumatic event that caused them. You do this through the technique of free association, which means that you say whatever comes to mind, even if it seems to make no sense to you at all. Your therapist helps you identify the defense mechanisms you use to protect yourself from feelings of distress. While these mechanisms can be helpful at first, they keep you from addressing the traumatic experience directly. Once you get to the heart of the trauma, the idea is that you will have insights that will help you resolve the conflicts you have been feeling.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

What It Is: EMDR is a relatively new type of psychotherapy. It was created with the goal of helping people process traumatic experiences in healthier ways. It typically helps much quicker than psychoanalysis or even psychodynamic psychotherapy. It assumes that the mind is constantly moving toward mental health unless something blocks that flow. The goal of EMDR is to remove that blockage.


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How It Works: The therapist uses some form of external stimulus to direct your attention outward. This can be eye movements, hand tapping, or audio stimulation. During this part of the session, you talk about the event, your current distress, or imagine what your future will look like while the therapist provides the external stimulus. Through this process, the therapist determines what to focus on during the second part of the session.

In the last half of the session, the therapist tells you what aspect of your story to hold in mind as you track their hand movements with your eyes or follow some other type of instruction. As you process the memories and thoughts related to the experience, you gain insights that come from within you alone. You realize that you have the strength that helped you survive. Your experience is transformed from a horrible memory to a vision of your own power.

Other Therapeutic Approaches on Emotional Trauma

Trauma therapy can include one or more of the above methods, but it can also include a variety of other therapies. Simple supportive counseling helps you feel safe while you face the trauma and change the way you think about it. Hypnotherapy is sometimes used, although there's little evidence that it's effective. However, a lack of evidence doesn't prove that it doesn't work but just that it hasn't been studied enough to determine whether it's effective.

Another type of therapy that is often used soon after a traumatic event happens is a psychological debriefing. Known as Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD), this type of therapy is used immediately after a traumatic event to give survivors support and the chance to talk about the experience and express their emotions. This type of therapy has been used recently for classmates of youth who have committed suicide, people who witnessed a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, and other high-profile events that might cause trauma.


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While it makes sense that a debriefing would help people in such a situation, the evidence so far hasn't supported it. Single-session debriefings have shown no benefit in studies conducted after such events. If you survived a traumatic experience and received a debriefing, you likely need further therapy to prevent or overcome trauma symptoms.

How to Get the Best Results from Trauma Therapy

Perhaps you've decided to seek therapy to deal with past trauma. Fantastic! The next step is to learn what you can do to get the most out of your treatment. Here are a few suggestions based on current research:

  • Work with a therapist you can develop a trusting, comfortable relationship with
  • Attend all scheduled therapy sessions
  • Stick with treatment to its conclusion

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How to Get Started

If you or a loved one is a survivor of psychological trauma, it's crucial to get help as soon as possible. Because the symptoms of traumatic stress can lead to secondary problems, the sooner you get help, the less damage you'll have to overcome. Make a commitment to find a therapist you can work with and stick with therapy as long as it's needed.

With your mindset on regaining your mental health, it's time to find a therapist. You can find a therapist in your local area or choose an online therapist for more convenience, affordability, and the same level of care as you can find locally. Trauma therapists are available through Better Help. You can start right now by visiting BetterHelp.com, filling out a simple form, and choosing a therapist. Once you begin therapy, you're well on your way to a better life!


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What It Means To Suffer From Psychological Trauma And What You Can Do About It
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