Recovering from trauma can often be difficult and slow going. What works for one person may not help someone else at all.
This is because people respond to trauma differently, and the effects of trauma can be complicated.
When you experience a traumatic event, your hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal systems release a surge of hormones to prepare you to fight, flee, or freeze.
In response, your heart rate speeds up, your breathing quickens, and your muscles tense. Your field of vision may narrow, your short-term memory may seem to go blank, and you might feel a sense of panic.
Trauma can cause physiological, neurological, and emotional effects — some short-lived and others much longer- lasting. When the effects of trauma do not go away or disrupt daily life, you may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Here’s what’s known about the treatment options for PTSD and what research tells us about the effectiveness of these treatments.
PTSD has been the focus of quite a lot of research. Several medications and therapeutic approaches have been shown effective in treatment.
Let’s look at each of these treatment options in more detail:
- neurological therapies
- at-home coping tools
Benefits of therapy
Some types of therapy may be helpful for treating PTSD symptoms. Some potential benefits of therapy can include:
- reduced anxiety
- reduction of depression symptoms
- decreasing the chance of relapse of depression symptoms
- improving skills needed for daily activities
Some forms of psychotherapy — also known as talk therapy — are effective treatments for PTSD.
Most of them are based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a kind of talk therapy that aims to identify and correct unhealthy and unrealistic thought patterns.
Cognitive processing therapy
Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) is based on the idea that immediately following a trauma, you were probably not able to fully process what happened to you.
In trying to understand the event and how it affected you, you might later come to conclusions that are not healthy.
You might, for example, decide that it’s not safe to trust anyone, or you might believe that you’re to blame for what happened.
CPT aims to identify those incorrect conclusions and restructure them in healthier ways. This kind of therapy usually takes place in around 12 sessions, during which you and your therapist work together to process what happened through talking or writing about the experience.
Prolonged exposure therapy
Like CPT, prolonged exposure therapy addresses the tendency to adopt unhealthy thinking patterns in the aftermath of a traumatic event.
For example, as a result of trauma, you may have developed a fear response that’s out of proportion to the dangers you face.
To change your fear response, prolonged exposure therapy begins with some education about PTSD symptoms. Your therapist will equip you with skills to calm down and cope when you face something frightening.
Once you’ve learned self-calming techniques, you and your therapist will create a hierarchy of fears.
You’ll start with things you find slightly scary and progress to more intense fears — possibly those related to the trauma you experienced. You will not progress to the next level on your hierarchy until you and your therapist are satisfied you can handle each one.
Over several months of treatment, you and your therapist will work together to help you face your fears, allowing you to practice new coping skills.
You’ll learn that your thoughts and memories related to the trauma are not actually dangerous and do not need to be avoided.
Many of the long-term effects of PTSD are neurological. For that reason, treatments that focus on the brain and nervous system have been found to be particularly effective at restoring function and reducing symptoms.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy that uses repetitive eye movements to interrupt and re-pattern some of the trauma-related memories you have.
After talking about your history, you and your therapist will select a memory that you find particularly difficult.
While you bring the details of that memory to mind, your therapist will guide you through a series of side-to-side eye movements. As you learn to process the memory and related feelings it brings up, you’ll gradually be able to reframe that memory in a more positive light.
It’s a low-cost therapy, has few if any side effects, and is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for treatment of PTSD.
Emotional freedom technique (tapping)
Tapping is one element of a treatment approach called clinical emotional freedom technique (EFT).
It’s similar to acupressure, a kind of massage treatment that uses physical pressure on certain sensitive points of the skin to relieve pain and muscle tension.
In a series of 4 to 10 sessions, a trained therapist can teach you how to tap certain rhythms on your hands, head, face, and collarbones while you actively reframe your memories of a traumatic event.
Tapping is often used along with cognitive and exposure therapies.
EFT therapies may also decrease the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in your body.
Although you can eventually use tapping on your own, it’s important to work with a trained, licensed therapist as you’re learning the techniques.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recommends certain antidepressants for the treatment of PTSD symptoms.
The APA notes that the most common medications used for PTSD treatment are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as:
- paroxetine (Paxil)
- fluoxetine (Prozac)
- sertraline (Zoloft)
It’s important to note that paroxetine and sertraline are the only FDA approved SSRIs to treat PTSD.
The short answer is a lot. A good starting place is to recognize the skills that enabled you to survive the trauma, even if those skills do not necessarily serve you well today.
You can also explore the many resources that have been developed to help trauma survivors recover from PTSD and regain their mental and physical health.
One of the most effective ways to process trauma is by writing.
In fact, some
You do not necessarily have to write about the traumatic event on its own. Writing about your life as a whole, including traumatic events, may also help reduce PTSD symptoms.
Try yoga or meditation
While yoga or meditation may not provide complete relief from symptoms, researchers recommend them as additions to therapy and medication.
Yoga may help you regulate your breathing, increase your awareness of your body, and respond to changing emotions.
Meditation may help you redirect your attention to the present moment, giving you a greater sense of control over intrusive memories.
Explore online therapy options
Another type of therapy option is online therapy. Online therapy allows you the freedom to attend therapy sessions from the comfort of your home, which may be less intimidating and more accessible than other types of therapy. It also gives you the freedom to get treated in a number of different ways, including your phone, computer, or an app.
The National Center for PTSD provides a number of resources, including:
- apps such as the PTSD Coach, PTSD Family Coach, Insomnia Coach, and Mindfulness Coach
- video tutorials that can educate you in greater depth about symptoms and treatments
- PTSD Treatment Decision Aid to help you decide which options suit your needs best
- online programs to help you deal with stress, anger, parenting challenges, and sleep issues
How to find a therapist that’s right for you
To find a therapist who can help you with PTSD, consider the following strategies:
- Look for a therapist specially trained in helping people recover from the kind of trauma you experienced.
- Consult your insurance provider’s network to keep your costs lower.
- Use a reliable online search tool such as the one maintained by the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.
- Get recommendations from trusted friends, colleagues, or trauma-focused community organizations.
- Think about what qualities in a therapist would make you feel most understood and comfortable. Do you want to work with an LGBTQ+ therapist? Someone who shares your faith, race, or gender?
- Consider distance. Is your prospective therapist close to your home or workplace? Do they offer virtual visits?
- Verify that your therapist is licensed in your state and is experienced working with PTSD.
And finally, give yourself permission to change therapists.
The first therapist you visit might not turn out to be a good fit. It’s OK to consider your initial visits as a kind of interview process to find the therapist that’s right for you.
Cost and insurance
Most insurance plans offer some coverage for mental health services, although deductible amounts and copays will vary from policy to policy.
Original Medicare, Medicare Advantage plans, and Medicaid also provide mental health benefits.
If you do not have health insurance and you’re looking for affordable PTSD treatment, try looking for a therapist who has a sliding-scale fee structure.
This search tool may be useful. The Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is another good option.
And if you need low-cost or free therapy, a community mental health center near you is an excellent starting point.
Trauma can cause physiological, neurological, and emotional effects. If the effects of trauma last longer than a month, or cause disruptions in your normal way of functioning, you may have PTSD.
The gold standard for treating PTSD symptoms is psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy.
EMDR and EFT have also shown promise in helping people recover from PTSD.
The effects of trauma are real and can have a powerful effect on the quality of your life, long after the event is over. But with time and the right treatment, there are ways to lessen the negative effects and restore your health and well-being.