How trauma therapy works, according to therapists
SHOCK, FLASHBACK AND DENIAL are just some of the emotions that can accompany a traumatic event. Sometimes, you need some trauma therapy to overcome this emotional distress, especially if it affects your relationships or ability to get through the day.
Trauma therapy can greatly improve a person’s ability to heal from the past trauma and regain emotional security, says Angeleena Francis, LMHC, executive director of AMFM Healthcare. Seeking professional support to identify the most effective way to deal with the trauma is the first step.
About 70 percent of adults have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lifetime, according to the National Council on Behavioral Health. It could result from abuse, an accident, natural disaster, bereavement, war or conflict, or from witnessing a violent act.
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Events can change profoundly, says Avi Klein, LCSW, clinical director and owner of Center somatic therapy in New York City ea Men’s health consultant. People develop coping strategies or long-term changes in their behavior and ways of relating as a result of those experiences.
Trauma or trauma-focused therapy therapy, can help you heal and learn to deal with the emotions that come with the traumatic event. It can include different types of therapyIncluded cognitive behavioral therapyeye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, exposure therapy, and others.
Trauma therapy it was really impactful, says Klein. For people who are feeling hopeless, there is 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 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 the way you think, see the world, and act on a daily basis.
It can come from abuse, military combat, being the victim of a crime, being in an accident or natural disaster, or any other impactful experience.
Trauma can vary in severity and is not a diagnosable condition, says Klein. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a diagnosable psychological disorder, but not everyone who has experienced trauma meets the criteria for PTSD.
Sometimes therapists might say there’s big-T trauma and then small-T trauma, she explains. There are experiences and events that could be classic PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, and dissociation. And then there are other events that can be traumatic, that are overwhelming and scary.
A hallmark of trauma is unprocessed experiences, which is why flashbacks are common, Klein says. It feels like something that happened in the past is happening in the present and you have cortisol spikes at times when you wouldn’t expect it.
Other symptoms of trauma can include:
- Depression and anxiety
- Stomach problems
- Mood swings
- Sleep problems
What is Trauma Therapy?
Trauma-focused therapy basically focuses on a specific trauma in your life, explores how the trauma affects you and helps you heal from it, she explains Alfred Tabaks, LPCa licensed professional counselor with Thrive works in Arlington, Texasspecializes in trauma.
Healing feels different from person to person, but the way I usually describe it is: Trauma is a wound that will eventually heal, she says. It doesn’t necessarily go away, but its impact diminishes and we learn to deal with it as it comes.
For example, if the trauma stems from an abuse or other event caused by another person, you might focus on forgiving yourself, not the other person, Tabaks says. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation, but it does help you release the pain.
Therapy for event-related trauma might focus on acceptance, she 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 in which to process the emotional aftermath of trauma, says Francis. It can include different types of therapy.
Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected and how changing one area can improve another, according to the APA extension. It helps you learn to change behaviors, thoughts and feelings that are interfering with your functioning. CBT targets trauma-related symptoms and helps you learn coping skills.
Desensitization and reprocessing through eye movements
EMDR was developed in the late 1980s to treat PTSD, according to the APA extension. It’s based on Adaptive Information Processing, which is a theory that suggests your brain stores normal and traumatic memories differently. EMDR is a multi-step therapy that encourages patients to focus on the traumatic memory as they experience bilateral stimulation, usually eye movements. The goal is to make the memory 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 shaken out of your thoughts and behaviors and is a common treatment for PTSD.
Exposure therapy helps you face your fears, which can help you break your trauma-related thoughts and behavior patterns, APA extension He says. Your therapist will create a safe space for you to expose yourself to what you fear and avoid, which, over time, will help you feel less fearful and stop 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 security, then help them ground themselves, focus on your breathing, orient yourself to the present, and retrain your body to relax.
Trauma therapy helps you process the traumatic event and deal with it without the emotional response, Francis adds. You learn to feel safe by having the memory.
At the heart of trauma therapy is assisting in that wound healing, Tabaks says.
Trauma therapy can ultimately reduce stress levels and the intensity and severity of triggers, it adds. You will also learn coping skills for dealing with trauma-related emotions.
Are there downsides to trauma therapy?
Trauma therapy can be intense, Tabaks says. You should prepare yourself to possibly mentally relive the trauma and to have the feelings of the trauma resurface.
A good therapist will make sure you’re prepared for this experience, she adds.
Trauma therapy works best when you also use other tactics to help you manage stress and anxiety, such as meditation, exercise, journaling or other types of self-care, says Klein.
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 interferes with your ability to be self-sufficient or function normally, you should seek help.
Still, trauma-focused therapy takes work, says Tabaks. It’s hard and can be scary at times, but it’s worth it, he adds. You don’t have to feel alone and you don’t have to do it alone. There are many experienced trauma therapists who are ready to work with you. Sometimes, the hardest step is getting started.
Erica Sweeney is a writer who focuses primarily on health, wellness and career. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.
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