Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/18/2023
When we realize that trauma has affected us in some meaningful way, we’ve made a major breakthrough for our mental health. Understanding the events that have changed our mental health and ways of thinking can provide us with avenues to better self-understanding — and to treatment.
Most importantly, these epiphanies can help put us on the path to treatments like therapy, which brings us to the topic at hand: the types of therapy for trauma.
Your daily life is typically free of natural disasters and other threats, but when trauma invades your safe environment — when you survive a car crash or sexual assault or earthquake — that trauma and the trauma memory it forms can lead to a number of mental health issues.
When we don’t treat trauma or stress disorders, we allow them to grow and take over in our otherwise healthy minds. Depending on how trauma has affected yours, there are several types of therapy for trauma that you might wish to investigate to help retake control.
We’re not here to rank the types of therapy for trauma. Instead, our goal is to give you a lay of the land — a 30-thousand-foot view of your options. From there, you’ll be able to see the things that might help you deal with your own trauma best.
But before we get into the options, let’s talk briefly about why therapy for trauma is necessary in the first place.
It’s important to understand that trauma is something that happens to us without our consent — something upsetting and disorienting.
When we experience trauma, our stress levels are raised and our bodies and brains can respond in a number of ways. They may get stuck in a sort of fight or flight response or change one's beliefs.
Trauma and the resulting psychiatric disorders that can occur from trauma are bad for your mental health — and that’s putting it lightly. To understand why, we need only look at PTSD — a disorder that results from trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition not unlike a broken car radio. When a car radio breaks, sometimes it can get stuck in the “on” position. The result may be noise — loud noise — that you have no control over. It may impair your ability to talk to other passengers, to concentrate or feel safe in your own vehicle.
PTSD is essentially a broken car radio, but instead of music, you have panic and anxiety. Instead of oldies looping, you feel like you’re reliving a traumatic experience over and over again (you can read about the other symptoms of PTSD in our guide).
Here’s the thing: you can’t just smash the radio or pry out the speakers. You have to fix the problem with the radio, and to do that you have to uncover what’s gone wrong in the first case.
A mechanic can do that to a vehicle, but to do the same with a traumatized mind, you need a mental mechanic — a therapy professional.
Learning how to cope with traumatic events is what comes next.
Therapy is considered one of the most effective ways to treat trauma. There are many forms of individual and group therapy that can help with trauma, depending on some factors that are unique to each trauma survivor.
There are many types of therapy that are considered effective for treating the various types of trauma, and they can focus on different elements of treatment.
Some may target symptoms, while others may focus on the problems it has caused in professional, personal or family relationships. You might even utilize multiple styles of therapy before things are over in your treatment journey.
There aren’t really “wrong” answers in the question of types of trauma therapy. In fact, as we mentioned, many people may employ several styles of therapy before their treatment is “complete.”
However, psychotherapy — or talk therapy — is usually the go-to. It can take place in individual or group settings, and typically takes place over six to 12 weeks (but may be shorter or longer, depending on what your therapy provider suggests).
Effective psychotherapy will help you understand your condition, identify the trauma itself and the triggers that cause your symptoms, and over time it will help you build the skills necessary for the management of those symptoms, reactions and other issues.
This might include relaxation techniques, anger control, lifestyle-focused changes for improving your diet, sleep and other habits, and it may also focus on dealing with the unpleasant feelings — guilt, shame, regret — associated with the event in question.
That being said, several types of psychotherapy have proven to be mainstays of the trauma and PTSD treatment stable for some time now.
Here are some of the more popular options:
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy in which a patient learns to use tools to help themselves. In the case of trauma, this means learning the ways in which you can reframe or reject thoughts associated with the trauma.
Making sense of the bad memories is difficult, but over time, the goal of cognitive therapy techniques is to help you remember events without re-feeling the experience, the guilt, the shame or other negative emotions associated with your individual trauma.
It can also help you learn to reject those intrusive thoughts that can sometimes focus your mind on trauma without your consent.
Learning to identify triggers for your symptoms and manage them effectively can essentially treat trauma by letting you navigate away from it — sometimes forever.
Exposure therapy (which is actually a specific type of CBT) generally focuses on helping people learn to face their fears and manage their responses to the memories and experiences of the trauma — without reliving the experience in panicked, fight or flight responses.
There are several versions of exposure therapy, including written exposure therapy, narrative exposure therapy and prolonged exposure therapy. Each of these is best chosen for individual patients.
Some may find it more helpful to write down a log of their experiences (written exposure) rather than talking about it in therapy sessions (which would be narrative exposure therapy).
And for people who are trying to build a degree of stamina in exposure to these events, prolonged exposure therapy invites you to participate in that conversation repeatedly — several times in a row.
The goal here is to desensitize you to the material and help you learn to separate your reaction from your recollection.
EMDR is a form of therapy focused on the traumatic memory itself for the purpose of desensitization.
Essentially, a person is asked to recall their traumatic event while following patterned eye movements.
It’s a form of bilateral stimulation that’s believed to effectively help a person “rewrite” or “overwrite” their memory, making it less impactful to recollect the events in question.
As recently as 2021, a review of PTSD treatment best practices confirmed therapy to be a so-called gold standard for effective treatment and management. Cognitive processing therapy, family therapy and additional forms of therapy may all make sense for individual needs.
But trauma-focused therapy is not the only method for treatment considered effective.
Studies have also shown that medications can be used in particular circumstances. While medication doesn’t really treat the root cause of trauma and PTSD symptoms, it can help in the management of physical and emotional symptoms of trauma.
One big caveat: medication should typically not include sedative-type medications like benzodiazepines, which are commonly used in the treatment of anxiety disorders and panic disorder. They risk the increase of intrusive thoughts and other dissociative symptoms when used over time.
Typically, antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are considered the first-line drug of choice for their ability to better moderate mood-related symptoms.
Aside from medication, the other treatment options for PTSD are fairly conventional. Increased focus on things like sleep hygiene and quality of life may mean that you’ll have to give up or reduce the consumption of things like alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and other drugs.
Because substance dependence can often be a part of a trauma response, cutting back on the self-medicating loop is generally a good idea regardless.
When trauma happens, you want to grow out of it — grow from it — and use it to make you stronger and more resilient. You can’t always do that with willpower.
This process starts with a mental health professional.
A mental health professional is uniquely trained to help you assess your symptoms and understand what may be at play. It may be trauma, but it might also be depression, anxiety or another mental health condition that’s sometimes associated with trauma. It could be all three, for that matter.
The point is that you won’t know what’s going on until you have that first conversation.
If you’re not sure where to start, our online therapy platform offers 24/7 access to therapy professionals who can help you figure out your next steps as part of your team.
If you still have questions about what’s going on, our mental health resources can help with that, too. You can get those questions answered there, or through our blog, where we cover mental illness and mental health issues (along with things like hair loss, skin health and sexual health).
If you’re ready to make changes, reach out.