Types of Trauma
There are three main types of trauma that patients may be dealing with:
- Acute Trauma: A singular traumatic experience, such as an accident, natural disaster, or sexual assault.
- Chronic Trauma: Multiple, long-term, and prolonged traumatic events. For example, domestic violence, bullying, addiction, sexual abuse, and long-term illness.
- Complex Trauma: Multiple different traumatic experiences. Potential causes can include childhood abuse, domestic violence, or civil unrest.
As noted above, trauma can stem from a one-time event, a long-lasting situation, or a combination of both. This includes any experience that causes emotional or psychological harm to the individual, such as abuse, domestic violence, neglect, divorce, loss, disasters, and more. Around 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one trauma. Not everyone will have lasting effects, but 6% of U.S. adults develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma can affect all areas of your life — but healing is possible. Therapies optimized for trauma can be beneficial. Trauma can change your brain and nervous system, leading to dysregulation and symptoms such as depression and anxiety. As such, trauma therapies focus on soothing the nervous system, integrating traumatic memories, and supporting both mind and body healing. Traumatic experiences can leave a deep imprint on the body and mind. The impact may appear immediately or years later, affecting an individual’s mood, relationships, and sense of self. But there are effective treatments to help clients heal from trauma.
How Can Therapy Help With Trauma?
Many people struggle to deal with their trauma for a long time because the trauma memories are unconsciously stored in the brain. Individuals don’t always have control over how they feel about the experience, making it difficult to cope with emotions and progress in healing.
There are many ways that therapy can help with trauma. Therapy can help clients integrate traumatic event(s) and understand them, enabling them to begin the healing process. Some therapists use techniques to help clients change their thoughts and responses to their emotions, assisting individuals to learn how to manage and progress on their healing journey effectively. Trauma memories will stay, but they have less power over individuals and their emotions. Other therapists use specific forms of therapy designed specifically for individuals with trauma or PTSD. There are many evidence-based practices (EBPs) for trauma and PTSD, which are interventions that have proven robust in working with targeted populations, though not all recommended therapies are EBPs. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to trauma treatment. Each intervention has its strengths and weaknesses, but all help people learn how to think more effectively about their emotions.
Types Of Therapy for PTSD & Trauma
Cognitive Processing TherapyCognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) was developed by Patricia Resick, Ph.D., ABPP, as a treatment for PTSD. Dr. Resick developed CPT to help people with trauma by teaching them how to change their thinking about the experience. CPT challenges and changes people's negative and unhelpful beliefs about the traumatic event, which can keep them “stuck.” The goal is to help people see the event in a new light, which can relieve the adverse effects they are experiencing.
Prolonged Exposure TherapyProlonged exposure (PE) therapy can help individuals reduce their anxiety around the source of their fear. This type of therapy involves confronting the basis of their fear to help them overcome the avoidance that developed after their trauma. In treatment, clients will learn how to control their breathing and talk about their trauma in a safe setting. They will also gradually face their fears in the real world. For example, someone who survived abuse might return to where it occurred. This can help them realize that the trauma is over and that they are safe now.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) is a cognitive behavioral treatment that helps kids and teens who have experienced trauma. TF-CBT helps individuals identify and correct false beliefs, develop healthy coping methods, and learn to express their emotions healthily. Parents and caregivers can also be involved in the therapy process.
Trauma Systems Therapy
Like trauma-focused CBT, trauma systems therapy (TST) is designed for children and adolescents. This therapy emphasizes the person’s emotions and actions. It also considers the role a threatening social environment or care system can play in keeping a young person in a dysregulated state.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a trauma therapy developed by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987. The treatment doesn’t involve much talking — it aims to help clients process and release traumatic memories through eye movements. The aim is to help their brain “reprocess” the memory — which wasn’t fully processed due to overwhelming stress. This reprocessing aims to release the memories, ultimately relieving nightmares, flashbacks, and triggers. EMDR works best for single-event trauma.
Accelerated Resolution Therapy
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recognized accelerated resolution therapy (ART) as an evidence-based treatment for trauma-related disorders. The technique aims to help clients find relief from trauma faster than other treatments for PTSD by assisting them in "reprogramming" how their brain stores their traumatic memories in one to three sessions. ART builds on different techniques, such as EMDR, to help clients quickly and effectively resolve their trauma.
Hypnotherapy is an alternative for people who have struggled with other therapy types, like EMDR or CPT. In hypnotherapy, a therapist helps clients relax and focus while reducing the emotional intensity of a particular event or memory. It can be a great way to help people feel more in control and empowered in their lives.
Traumatic memories often physically impact the body. Somatic therapy can help clients understand and release intense emotions, improving mental health and relieving chronic pain. Through practices like developing body awareness and grounding in the present moment, clients can begin to process and “release” trauma, improving their quality of life.
Art and Music Therapy
Art therapy can help boost mental health and support healing from trauma. It can take many forms, including dance, drama, music, writing, and creative art. Music therapy, meanwhile, can focus on helping people ground themselves by writing songs or compositions to create affirmations and regulate their thoughts or emotions.
In psychodynamic therapy, the therapist aims to help clients understand how their past experiences have affected their current emotions and behavior. The therapist will help the client explore the motives that drive their behavior, which may be out of their awareness. The goal is to help the client develop a greater insight into themselves and their relationships. Therapists can help clients understand how early childhood experiences and family dynamics may have shaped their coping methods and beliefs about themselves, others, and the future. By exploring these factors, clients can gain insight into why they may act or react in specific ways and learn new ways of coping with challenges.
Inner Child Work
Inner child work is a process of healing and self-discovery that can help people overcome guilt or shame from childhood trauma. It involves reconnecting with one's inner child to access and process the emotions felt at various ages. Clients learn to create safe and secure environments for themselves internally and externally. This can help them heal their inner child's wounds and live more fulfilling lives.
Narrative therapy is a relatively new treatment approach that can help clients understand and make meaning of their experiences. This technique could benefit those dealing with various mental health issues, including those who have experienced trauma. It can help clients reframe their stories and challenge negative beliefs about themselves, such as feeling “broken” or powerless to change their circumstances. With narrative therapy, clients can see themselves and the world in a new, more positive light.
Internal Family Systems Therapy
Internal family systems (IFS) is a talk therapy developed by therapist and academic Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. The theory holds that your personality comprises different “parts,” each with its characteristics. The “self,” or your core consciousness, regulates all parts. So, like a family has different members, your personality has other parts, too, and they all want what’s best for the self. A therapist will help clients get to know their different details during sessions. Some features may be more affected by trauma than others. The aim is to understand why some regions are hurting and learn how to help them with compassion rather than ignore or exile them.
Benefits of Trauma Therapy
Trauma is painful. It alters how people interact with others and how they understand or misunderstand themselves. Trauma can lead to numerous mental health problems, such as anxiety, self-harm, substance abuse, personality disorders, PTSD — and many others. The sooner a person can access trauma-informed treatment, the sooner they can heal. Some potential benefits of trauma therapy are:
- Reduce or improve trauma-related symptoms
- Empower personal growth
- Manage nervous system regulation (e.g., heart palpitations, shaking, etc.)
- Refocus the present over the past
- Overcome addictions
- Eliminate or reduce self-harm
- Recognize hereditary trauma
- Implement healthier coping skills
- Improve self-worth and self-esteem
Additional Trauma Resources
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Comorbidity + Differential Diagnosis
- How to Become a Trauma Therapist
- Addressing Trauma via Juvenile Probation Officer’s Treatment Planning
- Additional Insight on the Confluence and Impact of Trauma, Mental Health, and Incarceration
- Childhood Trauma and Risk Factors for Institutional Violence