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HomeHealth and MedicalHow Trauma Therapy Works, According to Therapists

How Trauma Therapy Works, According to Therapists

SHOCK, FLASHBACKS, AND DENIAL are just some of the emotions that can accompany a traumatic event. Sometimes, you need trauma therapy to work through this emotional distress, especially if it’s affecting your relationships or ability to carry out your day.

“Trauma therapy can greatly improve a person’s ability to heal from past trauma and regain emotional security,” says Angeleena Francis, L.M.H.C., executive director at AMFM Healthcare. “Seeking professional support to identify the most effective modality to address trauma is the first step.”

About 70 percent of adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. It could stem from abuse, an accident, natural disaster, grief, war or conflict, or witnessing a violent act.

“The events can be profoundly altering,” says Avi Klein, L.C.S.W., clinical director and owner of Downtown Somatic Therapy in New York City and a Men’s Health advisor. “People develop coping strategies or long-term changes in their behavior and ways of relating as a result of those experiences.”

Trauma therapy, or trauma-focused therapy, can help you heal and learn to cope with the emotions that come from the traumatic event. It can encompass several different types of therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), exposure therapy, and others.

“Trauma therapy has been really impactful,” Klein says. “For people who feel hopeless, there’s a lot of hope and possibility out there for them.”

Here, therapists explain what trauma therapy is, how it can help, and what you should know about seeking out the treatment.

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is an emotional response to a horrific event, according to the American Psychological Association. It can cause fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings that have a long-term negative impact on your life, including how you think, view the world, and function daily.

man sitting alone at home looking sad and distraught

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It can result from abuse, military combat, being the victim of a crime, being in an accident or natural disaster, or anything other impactful experience.

Trauma can range in severity and isn’t a diagnosable condition, Klein says. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosable psychological disorder, but not everyone who’s experienced trauma meets the criteria for PTSD.

“Sometimes therapists might say there’s a capital T trauma and then lower-case T trauma,” he explains. “There are experiences and events that might be the classic symptoms of PTSD, like flashbacks, nightmares, and dissociation. And, then there are other events that can be traumatic, which are overwhelming and frightening.”

A hallmark of trauma is unprocessed experiences, and that’s why flashbacks are common, Klein says. “It seems as if something that happened in the past is happening in the present, and you have cortisol spikes at moments when you wouldn’t expect to.”

Other symptoms of trauma can include:

  • Headaches
  • Pain
  • Fear
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Stomach problems
  • Nightmares
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep problems
  • Isolation

What Is Trauma Therapy?

Trauma-focused therapy basically focuses on a specific trauma from your life, explores how the trauma affects you, and helps you heal from it, explains Alfred Tabaks, L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor with Thriveworks in Arlington, Texas, who specializes in trauma.

“Healing looks different from person to person, but the way I usually describe it is: trauma is a wound that will eventually scar over,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily go away, but its impact lessens, and we learn how to handle it as it comes.”

mature man helps younger man verbalize problems in therapy

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For instance, if the trauma stems from abuse or another event caused by another person, you might focus on forgiveness—for you, not the other person, Tabaks says. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation but helps you release yourself from the hurt.

Therapy for event-related trauma might focus on acceptance, he adds. “It’s important to realize that trauma can rewire the brain.”

What Are the Types of Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy creates a safe space for you to process the emotional consequences of the trauma, Francis says. It can include several different types of therapy.

Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are linked, and how changing one area can improve another, according to the APA. It helps you learn to change behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that interfere with your functioning. CBT targets the symptoms related to trauma and helps you learn coping skills.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

EMDR was developed in the late 1980s to treat PTSD, according to the APA. It relies on Adaptive Information Processing, which is a theory suggesting that your brain stores normal and traumatic memories differently. EMDR is a multi-step therapy that encourages patients to focus on the traumatic memory while experiencing bilateral stimulation, usually eye movements. The goal is to make the memory feel less vivid and reduce the emotions associated with it.

Cognitive Reprocessing Therapy

This is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps you learn to challenge trauma-related thoughts and beliefs and change how you react to them, according to the APA. It can help you feel unstuck with your thoughts and behaviors, and it’s a common treatment for PTSD.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy helps you confront your fears, which can help you break your trauma-related thoughts and behavior patterns, APA says. Your therapist will create a safe space to expose you to what you fear and avoid, which will, over time, help you feel less fearful and stoping avoiding it.

The Benefits of Trauma Therapy

Different people respond to different types of trauma therapy. Klein says the goal is to access feelings of safety—“so helping them ground, focus on their breath, orient themselves to the present, and retrain their body to relax.”

man walks his dog in office park

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Trauma therapy helps you process the traumatic event and deal with it without the emotional response, Francis adds. You learn to feel safe in having the memory.

“At the core of trauma therapy is the assistance in that scarring over of the wound,” Tabaks says.

Trauma therapy can ultimately reduce stress levels and the intensity and severity of triggers, he adds. You’ll also learn coping skills for dealing with the emotions related to the trauma.

Are There Any Downsides to Trauma Therapy?

Trauma therapy can be intense, Tabaks says. You should prepare yourself for possibly mentally reliving the trauma and for the feelings from the trauma to resurface.

A good therapist will ensure that you’re prepared for this experience, he adds.

Trauma therapy works best when you also use other tactics to help you deal with stress and anxiety, like meditation, exercising, journaling, or other kinds of self-care, Klein says.

Should You Seek Trauma Therapy?

Trauma, especially unresolved trauma, can affect every aspect of your life: relationships, work, and anxiety levels, Francis says. When it’s interfering with your ability to be self-sufficient or function normally, you should seek help.

Trauma-focused therapy takes work, though, Tabaks says. “It’s difficult and can even be scary at times, but it’s worth it,” he adds. “You don’t need to feel alone, and you don’t need to do this on your own. There are plenty of therapists who are experienced in trauma therapy that are ready to work with you. Sometimes, the most difficult step is starting.”

Headshot of Erica Sweeney

Erica Sweeney

Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.

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