There are many types of trauma, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. However, trauma-focused therapy may be able to help you in your path to recovery.
From a broken heart to a car accident, many of us can recall events in our lives that caused us a great deal of pain. But when an experience causes our nervous system to boil over with stress, it can form a kind of psychological scarring. This is called trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 1 in 2 people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime.
Trauma does not discriminate. It can impact people of every race, ethnicity, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, and background.
Even though the symptoms of trauma can feel overwhelming, it is possible to recover and feel better. Trauma therapy is an option to achieve this.
In short, trauma is what happens when there’s a system overload.
It’s an emotional response to experiencing or witnessing a severely distressing event, or series of events. It is marked by persistent and intense feelings of helplessness, horror, and fear for your personal safety or that of someone else.
The symptoms of trauma are vast. They range from emotional effects to physical effects, and can include:
- trouble sleeping
- digestive issues
You can experience trauma in a variety of ways:
You may experience acute trauma, or type 1 trauma, immediately after going through a single traumatic event. For example, acute trauma may occur after a car accident.
Symptoms may last from 3 days to 1 month.
Other triggering events for acute trauma may include:
- natural disasters
- transportation accidents
- serious medical events
- physical violence
- sexual assault
Some people can have a traumatic experience and recover in a short period of time. Others, however, may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma can also develop from prolonged exposure to distressing events, such as abuse, bullying, or domestic violence. But it doesn’t just stop there — world events may have a great impact, too.
The COVID-19 pandemic is another example of how world events may affect you.
Complex trauma is associated with exposure to multiple traumatic events, usually over a series of months or years. This type of trauma is thought to develop from ongoing stress in situations that are inescapable, like being held captive or experiencing repeated abuse during childhood.
It’s commonly linked to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), a condition that’s becoming more widely recognized in the mental health community as a separate subtype of PTSD.
Human beings are empathic by nature. Research shows that when we’re in close contact with someone who has experienced trauma, we may take on some of their emotions and symptoms as our own.
People who work as mental health professionals or first responders, or those who witness a loved one going through symptoms of trauma, may also develop symptoms that look a lot like PTSD.
Trauma-focused therapy or trauma-informed therapy is an umbrella term. It describes the group of therapy modalities that are specifically designed to address trauma and PTSD. It is recommended by organizations like the APA.
Some of these modalities include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- prolonged exposure therapy (PE)
- eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
Besides these, there are other trauma-focused therapies that have been designed to specifically address the symptoms of trauma.
Herman’s model of trauma recovery
This model is based on the idea that trauma recovery can’t happen alone — it can only occur within the context of connection with other people.
Based on this approach, the steps to trauma recovery include:
- Stabilization. This refers to setting treatment goals, developing coping skills, and establishing safety within the self and other areas of life.
- Reprocessing. This is remembering and mourning the trauma in a safe environment and working through the grief.
- Reprogramming. This is integrating what has occurred and establishing a reconnection with ordinary life.
Trauma-focused therapy is different from
There are three key elements to this model:
- Realize the prevalence of trauma. This takes into account that most individuals have experienced some form of trauma, in one way or another.
- Recognize how trauma affects all individuals. This means noticing how trauma impacts each level of an organization and the system as a whole.
- Respond by putting this knowledge into practice. This refers to addressing organizational policies that may be retraumatizing.
For more information and resources, visit The Trauma-Informed Care Project.
Everyone responds differently to trauma and, therefore, to treatment. What works for one person may not work for another. In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to therapy and trauma recovery.
With that said, besides the trauma-focused approaches, there are certain “gold standards” for treating trauma symptoms. These treatments are also backed by the APA. This means that there is both research and clinical evidence that these approaches work for many people who have experienced traumatic events.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is often considered the first line of defense against trauma.
It works by helping you identify unhelpful thought patterns, learn coping skills to deal with difficult situations, and gain a better understanding of why other people behave the way they do, according to the APA.
There is no set time period for how long this method takes. It can be a few months to several years, depending on progress.
Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy
Since most people want to avoid anything that has to do with trauma, this modality teaches you how to gradually confront the feelings associated with a trigger in a safe environment, according to the APA.
With one session a week, it usually occurs over a period of 3 months. Research shows that this method may be useful for those with chronic, or reoccurring, PTSD.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Unlike other modalities that focus on thought patterns, this method works directly with memory.
After you’ve chosen what memory or event you’d like to work on, a trained clinician will have you focus on the memory while using a series of soft tones or gentle, alternating taps. As thoughts about the event emerge, you’ll have a chance to process them in a new way.
EMDR sessions can be scheduled once or twice per week. The total number of sessions varies from between 6 and 12, but some people may not need as many.
Complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) are becoming more widely accepted in the Western medicine model.
A recent meta-analysis showed that a number of treatment approaches look promising for the treatment of trauma, though more research is still needed in each of these areas.
Some complimentary treatments include:
- deep breathing exercises
- progressive relaxation techniques
- tai chi
Aerobic exercise is also an accessible option.
Along with complementary methods, consider maintaining a balanced lifestyle. If you can, get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night and consider eating a diet that contains plenty of nutrient-dense foods. When possible, it may be a good idea to save some time for relaxation and connecting with your loved ones on a regular basis.
Living with trauma can be a painful, isolating experience, but you don’t have to go through this alone. Treatment is available and recovery is possible.
If you’re ready to work with a professional who specializes in trauma recovery, the “Find a Clinician” tool from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies can help.
Having a safe place to talk about what you’re feeling can make all the difference in your healing process.
There are also some recommended books on healing trauma. These are a great place to begin:
- “The Body Keeps the Score”
- “Waking the Tiger”
- “Trauma and Recovery”
- “The Complex PTSD Workbook”
- “Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma”
Last but not least, try to go easy on yourself. You’ve been through a lot, after all. Consider taking all the time you need to feel what you need to feel. You can walk the healing path one day at a time, and know that there’s always hope for a better tomorrow.