How to Become a Trauma Therapist

How to Become a Trauma Therapist

Trauma therapists treat patients who experience and survive traumatic incidents. To become a trauma therapist, you need to earn a psychology graduate degree. After receiving a degree, you need to build experience treating trauma survivors and maintain your competence with the latest training in trauma therapy.


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1. What is Trauma Therapy?

Trauma is an emotional response experienced after a single or chronic extreme stressor.

Examples of trauma include

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual assault and abuse
  • Childhood abuse
  • War
  • Accidents
  • Medical
  • Natural disasters

Trauma counselors receive additional training on treatments proven to intervene with the effects of trauma, with an emphasis on minimizing the onset of stress disorders, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder (ASD). If left untreated, these unprocessed emotions can lead to well-documented adverse health effects. According to the APA, for some, the effects of trauma lead to debilitating symptoms that interfere with daily life. 

Symptoms of trauma involve:

  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoidance and numbing
  • Extreme changes in mood
  • Extreme changes in weight or appetite
  • Triggers and emotional reminders of the trauma
  • Disassociation, depersonalization, and derealization 

Trauma therapy is a specialized branch of therapy like marriage and family therapy, behavioral therapy, or adolescent therapy.

  • Analyzing, understanding, and processing trauma is central to the assessment and treatment of the patient. 
  • Training includes more time learning about strongly recommended treatments for trauma. 
  • Continually taking courses about the psychological and biological effects of trauma on the individual is necessary to maintain competency.

A trauma therapist’s ultimate goal is to guide patients to process their trauma in a safe and controlled environment. Not every patient who experiences a traumatic event will develop a stress disorder, so trauma training equips the therapist to counsel patients through any type of traumatic experience.

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2. Different Types of Trauma Therapy.

Trauma therapists develop their specialization as they continue their education. Because there are many different types of trauma, trauma counselors practice various treatment options depending on their patient population. For example, a child trauma therapist may use sandplay therapy, while a trauma counselor treating a veteran may choose eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) as a treatment plan.

Strongly recommended research-based treatments for PTSD are 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the patient’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings to change debilitating patterns.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) centers on challenging unhelpful beliefs still tied to the patient’s trauma. 
  • Cognitive therapy deals with the disturbing thoughts or behavioral patterns that arise after patients undergo trauma. 
  • Prolonged exposure aims at lessening the impacts of triggers tied to the traumatic event by removing the fear through exposure.

There is also a growing body of research establishing the effectiveness of alternatively available treatments for trauma-focused therapy. Other examples of trauma training include art therapy, a biopharmaceutical approach with medications, or psychotherapy. 

  • Art therapy incorporates a wide variety of art forms from origami to fingerpainting and is a form of specialized treatment requiring its own certification. 
  • Medicine is a biopharmaceutical approach where a trauma therapist works with a psychiatrist to provide the patient with the necessary medication. 
  • Psychotherapy covers the practice of hypnosis and EMDR but more generally refers to an analysis of the unconscious impact of trauma. 
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3. Trauma Therapy Requirements, Salary & Experience.

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s degree.
  2. Specialize your education. 
  3. Earn a Master’s or Doctorate.
  4. Decide if you want to open a private practice.

The first step on how to become a trauma therapist begins with becoming a certified therapist. Before anything else, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree then eventually complete a graduate program. The two main types of graduate academic programs are a master’s program or a doctoral program. Regardless of degree, a therapist who receives training in trauma therapy can become a trauma therapist. 

Understanding what type of therapy you want to practice allows you to apply to graduate programs with a niche in mind. For instance, an art therapist needs to graduate from an accredited art therapy program and needs to decide before applying to graduate programs. Meanwhile, an aspiring trauma therapist who wants to work with children should earn a graduate degree in developmental or child psychology.

Overall, an aspiring trauma therapist should look into a clinical psychology degree that works for them with a program specialization in trauma training. If you already earned a degree, turn your mandatory continuing education credits into an opportunity to secure a specialty certificate. To complete certification, search for a certified clinical trauma professional (CCTP) program like these from Trauma Institute International. Or earn a psychology certification in DBT or digital mental health to strengthen additional skills that are valuable to trauma therapists. 

If you want to be a private practice therapist, additional requirements involve earning your license and completing supervision hours with a practicing professional. All therapists can expect to spend somewhere between 2,000-4,000 hours under the supervision of a licensed professional during their career. 

Salary ranges are higher for therapists who own private practices. Therapists who earn certifications and those with additional years of experience also earn higher salaries. Depending on the state, the average trauma therapist makes about $76,704 on average per year, according to ZipRecruiter. To set accurate therapy prices, do market research to see how many sessions and salaries are in your area. 

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4. Why Trauma Therapy Matters.

  • Adverse or harmful experiences in childhood deeply affect the individual into adulthood. Traumatic experiences also affect developing adults. Dr. Nadine Burke, Surgeon General of California, highlights the term adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in her TED Talk and shares the importance of the effects of trauma over a lifetime.

  • Individuals who experience trauma are more likely to develop physical and mental illnesses at higher rates than those who don’t. Harvard Health released an article continuing the discussion of how past trauma may haunt your future health. Examples of these health conditions include obesity, diabetes, and cancer. 

  • The truth is most people experience trauma at some point throughout their lifetime. The National Center for PTSD estimates 8 million adults have post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year. That number is only a fraction of individuals who have experienced trauma.

Since there are large populations of individuals who experience trauma, trauma training provides therapists with specific tools useful to their patients’ treatment. The APA and National Center for PTSD mention that strongly recommended trauma treatments help patients lead a life with notably fewer disruptions. Building a skill set and gaining experience working with trauma survivors sets trauma therapists apart in their treatment. 

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5. Self-Care for Trauma Therapists.

Because of the constant exposure and proximity to trauma, trauma therapists need to establish boundaries with patients to avoid absorbing additional stressors. Therapists that prioritize self-care are better able to help their patients navigate their emotions.

  • Indirect trauma, also known as vicarious or secondary trauma, is the terminology for when a therapist accumulates experiences and emotions of trauma after working with their patients. With indirect trauma, the therapist starts to feel the symptoms of trauma build up physically. Indirect or secondary trauma is an unavoidable experience for those who treat trauma patients.  

  • Compassion fatigue deals with the gradual loss of empathetic emotions after consistently treating patients with trauma exposure. Trauma treatment providers may experience numbness from the constant strain.

  • Burnout is an emotional response to workplace stressors. Burnout leads to physical and mental symptoms that affect an individual’s performance. Trauma therapists need to continuously take care of themselves to manage stress to avoid emotional and physical exhaustion.

Trauma therapists can do their best to protect themselves from vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout by maintaining their wellness early and consistently. The National Center for PTSD hosts a provider self-care toolkit. The Implementation Center for Trauma-Informed Care lists 12 self-care tips for transforming compassion fatigue into compassion satisfaction

The following workshops discuss evidence-based interventions that help minimize the effects of burnout. 

Headshot of CONCEPT Writer
Jasmine Monfared holds a post-bacc certificate in Counseling and Psychology professions from UC Berkeley Extension. She volunteers as a crisis counselor on a local hotline that serves 15+ counties in Northern California. Jasmine graduated from UC Berkeley with a sociology major and a minor in journalism. As an undergraduate, she implemented mental health curriculum in a faculty-sponsored sociology course with an emphasis on accessibility and diversity.

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