Trauma & Recovery: How Trauma is Treated

June 23, 2023

There’s numerous ways that professionals treat trauma, all depending on the preferences of the client and most effective therapies that a particular therapist knows. Some of the most common therapy practices for individuals with trauma include EMDR, prolonged exposure therapy, trauma-focused CBT, and cognitive processing therapy. Each of these is done with the focus of looking at the trauma in a different way, accepting what happened, changing beliefs about the event, and being able to remember a traumatic experience without feeling like the event is happening in real time. Let’s go a little more in-depth for each of these.

EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s a more recent therapy that has its roots with soldiers experiencing PTSD. At first glance, it might seem silly or strange, but EMDR has actually developed a reputation as an effective treatment for taking the sting out of disturbing and unpleasant memories. The therapy is done with a client recounting a traumatic memory, and the beliefs they hold due to that memory, while the therapist moves a finger or other stimulus from side to side with the client watching. Different, more positive beliefs are offered and these statements are instilled through the bilateral movement, and by the end of a session, ideally, the trauma has been “reprocessed” and is no longer an active problem. 

Exposure therapy is a treatment used to soothe and dissipate irrational fears that’s often used in cases of agoraphobia, OCD, general phobias, and severe social anxiety. Prolonged exposure therapy is similar to this. It’s a more “serious” type of exposure used to treat severe or multiple traumas, hence its frequency of use in the treatment of PTSD in particular. 

Prolonged exposure therapy begins with the client explaining the event and processing their related thoughts and feelings. A list of things that the client avoids and finds distressing because of their relation to the trauma will be made. These are often ranked using SUDS, which is a tool also utilized in other therapies for ranking levels of distress from 0 to 100. Over time, the client is led to confront the things on their list, either in or out of therapy. Breathing techniques and other coping skills are taught throughout.

Cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, is a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy (your regular talk therapy) that’s focused on modifying unhelpful beliefs and thoughts related to trauma while also reducing symptoms caused by the trauma. This is done through Socratic questioning, which the therapist delivers as the client recounts their experiences and related beliefs. The client may also be asked to write down the traumatic event and review or read it during sessions. 

Finally, trauma-focused CBT is a trauma treatment that’s usually done with children or adolescents, so it often involves clients’ families and therefore incorporates pieces of family therapy, too. Treatment generally begins with the child and caregiver having separate therapy sessions and eventually converges into joint sessions. Some of the main features offered in TF-CBT include coping skills, exposure, cognitive processing, and caregiver involvement.

There are other notable trauma therapies, too—these are just a few of the most common. As always, therapy combined with medication is considered the most effective treatment for any mental malady, and many therapists are willing to discuss medication in addition to providing therapy. Self-care, coping skills, and grounding exercises can also be very helpful in combating trauma symptoms and bringing a person back to feeling safe in their body and world. 

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