Common Therapy Approaches to Help You Heal from Trauma

Woman with curly hair sitting on therapist's couch with head leaned on hand. Sitting next to her, a female therapist in a grey coat is listening and taking notes on a clipboard.Learning about the stages of healing can be distressing, motivating, upsetting, or uplifting. No matter how you feel, your reaction is not wrong. Acknowledging your emotional response to the stages of healing can allow you to harness your emotions’ energy and reach out to a trained therapist.

When looking for a therapist, it is vital to keep in mind that, regardless of what type of psychotherapy you pursue, your therapist should empower you and welcome you as a collaborator in your therapy, not attempt to impose control over you. Studies have found that individuals who are active participants in their therapy are more satisfied with the therapy. In addition, it is crucial that you feel safe in your therapeutic relationship.

There is no magical treatment that will heal you overnight, nor is there one form of psychotherapy that is right for everyone, but you should be able to find a therapist, as well as a therapeutic approach, that works for you. Healing is like a marathon. It requires preparation, repeated practice, courage, determination, and the support of others—including that of a professional coach or therapist.

While there are numerous therapy approaches, the purpose of all trauma-focused therapy is to integrate the traumatic event into your life, not subtract it. This article discusses the most common forms of trauma therapy. Each approach is described in its most pure form, but keep in mind that many therapists combine different types of therapies.

Pharmacotherapy

Pharmacotherapy is the use of medications to manage disruptive trauma reactions. Medications have been shown to be helpful with the following classes of reactions/symptoms:

Taking medication does not make one’s trauma reactions and pain evaporate. Medications can only help make the symptoms less intense and more manageable.

If you decide to use medications, consult a psychiatrist and continue working with that psychiatrist for as long as you take the medications. Inform the psychiatrist of how the medications are impacting you. Some medications have side effects that may or may not be tolerable to you, and some people do not respond favorably to medications. Medications are most effective when individuals pursue therapy concurrently.

Behavior Therapy

The most common form of behavior therapy is exposure. In exposure therapy, one gradually faces one’s fears–for example, the memories of a traumatic event–without the feared consequence occurring. Often, this exposure results in the individual learning that the fear or negative emotion is unwarranted, which in turn allows the fear to decrease.

Exposure therapy has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, improve social adjustment, and organize the trauma memory. There are various forms of exposure therapy:

  • Imaginal exposure: An individual imagines the feared event as vividly as possible.
  • In vivo exposure: The exposure occurs in the therapy.
  • Systematic desensitization: The individual is exposed to successively more fear-inducing situations. This exposure is paired with relaxation.

Exposure therapy is a highly effective treatment for posttraumatic stress (PTSD).

Another form of behavior therapy is Stress Inoculation Training (SIT), also known as relaxation training. Stress Inoculation Training teaches individuals to manage stress and anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is grounded in the idea that an individual must correct and change incorrect thoughts and increase knowledge and skills. Common elements of cognitive behavioral therapy trauma therapy include:

  • Teaching individuals how to breathe in order to manage anxiety and stress
  • Educating individuals on normal reactions to trauma
  • Exposure therapy
  • Identifying and evaluating negative, incorrect, and irrational thoughts and replacing them with more accurate and less negative thoughts

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Therapists who perform EMDR first receive specialized training from an association such as the EMDR Institute or the EMDR International Association. An EMDR session follows a preset sequence of 8 steps, or phases. Treatment involves the person in therapy mentally focusing on the traumatic experience or negative thought while visually tracking a moving light or the therapist’s moving finger. Auditory tones may also be used in some cases. Debate regarding whether eye movements are truly necessary exists within the field of psychology, but the treatment has been shown to be highly effective for the alleviation and elimination of symptoms of trauma and other distress.

Hypnotherapy

There is no one guiding principal for hypnotherapy. In general, a hypnotherapist guides the individual in therapy into a hypnotic state, then engages the person in conversation or speaks to the person about certain key issue. Most hypnotherapists believe that the emotions and thoughts that an individual comes into contact with while under hypnosis are crucial to healing.

Psychodynamic Therapy

The goal of psychodynamic trauma therapy is to identify which phase of the traumatic response the individual is stuck in. Once this is discerned, the therapist can determine which aspects of the traumatic event interfere with the processing and integration of the trauma. Common elements of psychodynamic therapy include:

  • Taking the individual’s developmental history and childhood into account
  • Placing emphasis understanding the meaning of the trauma
  • Looking at how the trauma has impacted the individual’s sense of self and relationships, as well as what has been lost due to the traumatic event

Group Therapy

There are a variety of different groups for trauma survivors. Some groups are led by therapists, others by peers. Some are educational, some focus on giving support, and other groups are therapeutic in nature. Groups are most effective when they occur in addition to individual therapy. It is important for a trauma survivor to choose a group that is in line with where one is in the healing journey:

  • Safety/victim phase: Choose a group focused on self-care and coping skills.
  • Remembering and mourning/survivor phase: Pick a group focused on telling the trauma story.
  • Reconnection/thriver phase: Join a group that aims to create connection with people.
  • Educational groups are appropriate during all phases.

Any therapist, regardless of which type of therapy she or he works from, desires to help you grow and heal through your traumatic experience.

Together, you and your therapist will strive to acknowledge and identify:

  • Where you are at in your healing journey
  • Who you would like to be and what you would like to be doing when you enter into the thriver stage
  • How you can get to that place from where you are now
  • How to guide you through this healing work

As always, reach out for help and know that you do not need to go it alone.

Reference:

  1. What is the actual EMDR Therapy session like? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.emdrresearchfoundation.org/for-the-public/what-is-the-actual-emdr-therapy-session-like

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • sandy

    March 9th, 2011 at 1:28 PM

    The more that people realize that healing from a traumatic event is rather like running a marathon as mentioned then the better they will be. Grief and trauma have their own stages much like a marathon and there will be stages where you feel good and there will be stages where you feel like you are never going to be able to finish but when you do what a relief and exhilarating experience that will be. Healing takes time and energy but it is so worth it in the end to allow the process to be completed and you can become yourself again.

  • Sal

    December 11th, 2016 at 4:55 PM

    Yeah that sounds good sandy,wish you the best.

  • Najiya

    March 19th, 2017 at 2:11 PM

    Sandy, I love your comment. You sound like a very strong and brave person who has fought to regain the balance in their life and move forward to find the peace and happiness that you deserve. Yes, it´s not easy, but yes, it is possible.

  • cole

    March 9th, 2011 at 2:26 PM

    if there is one thing i have learnt from my own experience with therapy,it is that there is a perfect therapy for each one of us and each of our problems and that it is just a matter of finding it.many people start out with a non-perfect therapy type and because it does not show results they think therapy is useless and quit.this happens sometimes when they are actually very close to finding the right one!

  • Najiya

    March 19th, 2017 at 2:19 PM

    Cole, Although I would say that there is no “perfect” therapy, I like your emphasis on the importance of finding the therapy and therapist that is the “right fit” for you. Sometimes it takes a while to find that match, but like you said, it´s so important to keep trying and never give up. You have to remember that you deserve to heal and move forward, and that you can best do that by finding getting the support that you need.

  • HANNAH

    March 9th, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    Wow,there r so many kinds of therapy! I’m pretty sure there r a lot more apart from what’s mentioned here. It’s really nice to know because this means there is a therapy for every problem and each one is best suited for a few. Definitely ensures a good treatment.

  • Brandi

    March 10th, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    I have always been interested in hypnotherapy and the ways that it could be blended into my own treatment for depression. Do you really think that it could help? Where could I find more information about it?

  • margaret rodey

    June 29th, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    I am a victim of rape while in the AF. i have been accused of being jealous of the rapist, by the VA. of not having a right to say no to any man by the VA, of not being good enough for a man to risk losing his retirement over again by the VA, of waking and looking in the mirror and discovering I was too old, fat and ugly to get a man and I need it to be a cop between my legs.Asychiatrist told me the only way to get over this was to deny and never talk about it or he would make it real bad for me at Milwaukee county Mental health complex actualy three of them said that. in various words. anyway I am not looking forward to any therapy as in WI their idea of behavioral helath is it doens’t matter what the woman went through she doesn’t have the right to misbehave to any man.The VA also told me after 3 and 1/2 years that she wanst done evaluating me yet and then when I wanted to switch therapists she told olthers she wanted me to come to her for all of my needs and blackballed me. I have been told theat by many many different therapists.

  • Lakshmi

    December 21st, 2012 at 7:41 PM

    Transcendental Meditation has shown to be very effective against PTSD & anxiety in general, especially for those who don’t want to probe into the stressful memory. No need to analyze the darkness, just bring the light, a return to wholeness in the Self. Best wishes!

  • marquis

    January 15th, 2015 at 5:48 PM

    Hello. I am seeking other kinds of therapy. I did the boring how does that make you feel which did nothing for me as ex-therapist and I were always at each other’s throats. After that therapy, left me with more anger she wasn’t in support of me only what felt right to her as a parent!

    Too much dictatorship in her office I had to do her job! I still have a stuck mindset that hasn’t been broken yet which that previous therapist was of no help. I want to explore other options I feel like a basket case can’t seem to solve my own problems nor do I want to be in therapy for years.

  • Sal

    December 11th, 2016 at 5:05 PM

    Hang in there guys,I readed years of this stuff I might can help you guys,let me brush up on it and I’ll get back to you.

  • Meagan Stewart

    April 11th, 2016 at 1:47 AM

    Over the years I have accepted that I have lived through some extremely traumatic events, from early child hood to late teens. Now, an adult, I am starting to see that these events are effecting my every day life. Anxiety, depression, and constant feeling of being unsafe have been harmful in every aspect of my life. Thank you for the information, wish I could practice more self therapy instead of seeing a professional. I can’t afford it.

  • Kendall R

    July 28th, 2016 at 9:17 AM

    I love going to yoga because it really helps me learn how to calm down and just breath. It has really helped me to relive stress in my life and focus on more important things. I can see how teaching individuals to breath can really help with stress and anxiety. I think that is a good idea for any individual who has experienced trauma!

  • Memory

    April 12th, 2017 at 6:19 PM

    I yet to find one… I have given up…, To old now anyways.

  • Beth Riemel

    June 22nd, 2017 at 2:01 AM

    I appreciated your comment about trauma and it is very helpful. The hope of getting heal from trauma was finished but due to these therapies we are getting some possibilities.

  • Laura

    July 20th, 2017 at 9:52 AM

    I was severely domestically abused in every way possible-emotionally, physically, mentally, financially, sexually. After the divorce, the abuse, break-ins to my home and car continue. After an extremely full, productive (I’m an attorney and very successful fundraiser) social and happy life, I became completely agoraphobic and alcoholic. I also had to move to an unfamiliar area during a vicious divorce. Diagnosed with severe PTSD, Stockholm Syndrome and extreme trauma, depression and anxiety, I, like the rest of you, am trying to find a modality of treatment. Anti-anxiety and sleep medication have proven effective. YouTube has many different guided meditations and hypnosis that help. Distraction has been effective, but is difficult to find. EMDR helps me with momentary grips of panic. I have been to the best facilities for treatment and learned good things from all of them, but find that their overall 5% success rate proves true. You have to 1) Go WHEN AND WHERE you choose. Families think that they send in a damaged loved-one and the place spits out a fixed person, 2) Stay and give yourself permission emotionally to take 2-3 months out of your life, 3) Recognize that they are going to recommend the exact treatment for every patient. They don’t hone care and they don’t listen when you tell them that their methods don’t work for everyone the same way, and 4) Make sure that you come home to a safe, supportive environment with as little pressure as possible. I came home to the perfect storm for failure. I moved at 8 am the next day. My ex-husband not only called me shouting obscenities at me at the facility, but threatened me continuously every time we had any interaction after I got back. The trauma therapist I tried wanted me to introduce her to my friends for her photography business (the first 20 min.s of every session was taken up with her showing me her work), insisted on coming to my home and immediately told me my drapes, “those HAVE to go” (unbelievable), offended my parents after i warned her not to focus on any of their shortcomings, but to explain to them what trauma was and its effect. She battered them with questions about their marriage. They left confused and hurt and blamed for things that were irrelevant. I left every session feeling anxious and shaking uncontrollably. An acquaintance I met that saw this therapist said she had the same reaction and neither of us continued. There are good therapists and it can work, but It’s an expensive and extremely time-consuming process, one which I cannot afford right now. You HAVE to shop around. When I could, it took about 2 years of bi-weekly, then once a week therapy. It got better, but I remained in the bad situation and when I tapered off, my home life worsened and worsened. The trauma has to end before any recovery can occur. Being around people helps, but it has to be supportive people with no alternative agendas. I had to cut myself off from certain toxic people that were exacerbating the battle raging in my own head with their recriminations. The old me would have been able to blow those off, but I no longer could. That has been excruciating, but necessary. My once-robust physical health and vitality disintegrated drastically and I’m focusing on regaining health before moving to the next step of getting a normal life back. I hope some of what I have said helps one of you.

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