Therapy for PTSD: Effective Interventions

Katelyn Hagerty

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Rachel Sacks

Updated 08/26/2022

If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic event, you may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Recovering from trauma can be difficult and what works for one person may not work for someone else.

One treatment option that has shown to be extremely effective is therapy for PTSD.

Because people respond differently to trauma, different types of therapy may help different people.

We’ll go into more detail about the best therapy for PTSD and how effective each is.

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a disorder that develops in people who have experienced a shocking, scary or dangerous event.

Experiencing a traumatic event can seriously impact someone’s mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. If there are long-term effects of that trauma, it may be post-traumatic stress disorder.

Examples of traumatic experiences could include a sexual assault, history of child abuse, an accident, a natural disaster and other negative life events such as losing a loved one.

About seven or eight out of every 100 people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

Women are two to three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than men.

Around 10 percent to 20 percent of people who experience trauma develop PTSD symptoms afterward.

Symptoms may vary between people and the type of trauma they experienced. Four common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder include:

  • Avoidance. Trying to avoid situations or people that trigger memories of the traumatic event. This symptom could find you avoiding certain places or even thoughts or feelings related to the incident.

  • Re-experiencing the trauma. Something reminds you of the trauma and you feel that fear again. One example is through flashbacks or intrusive thoughts that put you back in the traumatic event.

  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms. Constantly being on the lookout for danger to prevent another traumatic event from happening. You could be easily startled, on edge or have angry outbursts.

  • Cognition or mood symptoms. Negative changes in your thoughts, beliefs or feelings. For example, having negative thoughts about yourself or blaming yourself for the incident.

Learn more in our guide on PTSD signs and symptoms in women.

Major depression is another common problem that can develop after a traumatic event.

A review of multiple studies found that major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder are very likely to occur at the same time, with rates ranging from 42 to over 50 percent of patients.

Those who’ve had PTSD at some point in their lives are three to five times more likely to develop major depression than those who didn’t experience post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some depressive symptoms can be similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as trouble sleeping, emotional outbursts and a loss of interest in activities.

Posttraumatic stress disorders can also coexist with other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorders, social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorders.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is typically diagnosed after someone has been experiencing symptoms for more than a month.

A mental healthcare provider will also look for adults who have had the following for at least one month:

  • A minimum of one avoidance symptom

  • A minimum of one re-experiencing symptom

  • A minimum of two mood and cognition symptoms

  • A minimum of two reactivity symptoms

  • A minimum of two arousal symptoms

Symptoms can begin as soon as three months after the traumatic incident or even years afterward.

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There are different treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder, with therapy for PTSD being one of the most common treatments.

However, a few have proven to be the best therapy for PTSD that have shown post traumatic growth from evidence-based research.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is psychotherapy that seeks to help people identify unhealthy and negative thought patterns that fuel harmful behaviors and ways to change them.

CBT has consistently been the most effective treatment in both short- and long-term treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder focuses on the traumatic event that occurred. 

Within cognitive-behavioral therapy, there are different forms of therapy. Two cognitive therapies commonly used in PTSD treatment are:

  • Cognitive processing therapy. Oftentimes people remember a traumatic event differently than how it happened and come to conclusions that are not healthy. Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) aims to identify those incorrect conclusions and restructure them in healthier ways.

  • Exposure therapy. In exposure therapies, people are asked to face their fears by exposing themselves to the source of their trauma. Exposure therapy for PTSD addresses the tendency to adopt unhealthy thinking patterns in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Exposure can happen in the form of recounting a memory, writing about it or even going to the actual location of the trauma. A randomized clinical trial of 126 adults found exposure therapies to be as effective as cognitive processing therapy.

EMDR Therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a relatively new type of psychotherapy for those struggling with past traumatic events.

EMDR aims to reduce the symptoms of trauma by changing how the traumatic memories are stored in the brain and resolving unprocessed traumatic memories.

This therapy technique uses bilateral stimulation (like taps or eye movement) while focusing on the traumatic memory to reduce the memory's emotional impact. This allows you to heal from the fear and pain associated with the trauma.

A 2018 review of research found that EMDR therapy by a mental health professional can help reduce many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as anxiety, depression, fatigue and paranoid thought patterns.

EMDR has been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorders.

Present Centered Therapy

Present-centered therapy (PCT) is a type of non-trauma-focused treatment that centers around current issues rather than directly processing the trauma.

Present-centered therapy focuses on increasing adaptive responses to current life stressors and difficulties related to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

This type of therapy teaches those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder to better understand how symptoms are disrupting their day-to-day life as well as effective strategies to deal with daily challenges.

Emotional Freedom Technique

Emotional freedom technique (EFT or tapping) is an evidence-based treatment that uses acupressure, a kind of massage treatment using physical pressure on certain sensitive points of the skin to relieve pain and muscle tension.

Tapping is used in combination with techniques from exposure and cognitive therapies.

EFT therapies may decrease the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body.

A trained EFT mental health professional teaches you how to tap certain rhythms on the hands, head, face and collarbones while you actively reframe your memories of a traumatic event.

Studies have found that EFT therapies can reduce symptoms of not only post-traumatic stress disorders but anxiety disorders and major depression as well.

While therapy is one of the best treatment options for posttraumatic stress disorders, medication may be another recommendation by a healthcare or mental health professional.

Medications are sometimes used as a supplementary to one of the therapies described above.

One of the more common types of medications used is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRIs are antidepressants prescribed if an experienced symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is a depressed mood.

Currently, only two SSRIs are FDA-approved for the treatment of PTSD. Those are sertraline (Zoloft®) and paroxetine (Paxil®).

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While no one particular therapy is considered the best therapy for PTSD, several are strongly recommended by mental health professionals and supported by research.

Some people will need to try different treatments to find what works for their post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anyone with post-traumatic stress disorder should be treated by a mental health care professional who is experienced with PTSD.

Talk to a healthcare provider for recommendations or go through a consultation with our online mental health resources to find the best fit for you.

You can also learn more about what to expect at your first therapy appointment.

16 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.

She received her undergraduate degree in nursing from the University of Delaware and her master's degree from Thomas Jefferson University. You can find Katelyn on Doximity for more information.

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