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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bill Hoekstra

What is the Best Type of Trauma Therapy?

Trauma affects everyone differently. As there is no universal or “correct” response to a situation, two people going through the same event can report wildly different experiences. So, in choosing the best trauma therapy, it is important to examine your unique needs. There are many different options to choose from to help you discover the right approach for your healing journey.

What is trauma?

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing event that has overwhelmed your nervous system beyond its capacity to cope. In times of trauma, your body undergoes a heightened state of alertness, preparing for either a fight-or-flight response, while your brain actively searches for indicators of potential threats. These events take various forms and occur in different settings. Trauma could stem from instances of natural disasters, combat in war zones, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, accidents, and witnessing or experiencing violence. Trauma’s effects can be immediate and long-lasting, affecting your physical health, mental well-being, and emotional stability.

As trauma activates your survival mind, it activates your autonomic nervous system. You may experience physical symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, trembling, difficulty breathing, and fatigue. Mentally, you might feel overwhelmed, confused, or disoriented. Emotionally, you can grapple with intense fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, or a sense of detachment.

Long after the traumatic experience is over, your brain and body are still in states of high alert, searching for potential danger. This long-term existence in survival mode can impact your overall health and well-being. Trauma has the capacity to modify your brain and disrupt its regulation, potentially resulting in mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders, as well as challenges in emotional self-regulation. It can also hinder your ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, function effectively in day-to-day life, and even impact your physical health.

When you understand the definition of trauma and how and why it affects you, you can set the stage for your healing journey and seek out a treatment plan that offers the best, individualized support for you. Finding the best kind of trauma therapy can help you on your road to trauma treatment and serve as a stable sounding board for your recovery.

How can therapy help with trauma?

A trauma-informed therapist can help you navigate through your dysregulated and overwhelmed state after the experience of trauma. Having a safe, understanding space to process challenging thoughts and emotions is vital. A compassionate, safe space can help with some of the more challenging aspects of trauma and create a specialized treatment plan for you.

A good trauma therapy will:

Educate you on trauma and help you make sense of your experience

As trauma can often occur in the unconscious portions of your brain, your compassionate mental health provider can provide you with knowledge and understanding surrounding your experiences and allow you to integrate them more efficiently.

Trauma has a way of fragmenting our experiences, leaving us with unconnected memories and emotions that can be difficult to make sense of. Therapy helps to connect the dots, allowing you to piece together the pieces of traumatic experiences and gain a clearer understanding of what happened.

Can help get you “unstuck”

Trauma stores memories differently from regular ones, locking them in the limbic region of the brain’s emotional center, where time doesn’t apply. Consequently, traumatic events can overwhelm and trap you in a cycle of distressing thoughts and emotions. It can feel like the trauma is unfolding in the present. Furthermore, emotions can become stagnant and stay within your body. Trauma therapy recognizes this stagnation as a common aspect of trauma and aims to mobilize and transform these emotions, freeing them from a timeless and spaceless void.

Help to validate your experience and create a connection

Living with trauma can make you feel like you’re leading a different life from others. The reason for this is that traumatic experiences and their effects can significantly change the brain and alter your perception, emotions, and daily experiences. In addition, being in a constant state of hyperarousal paints how you interact with your surroundings. Trauma sufferers have a hard time letting their guard down and being vulnerable, leaving you with a feeling of isolation and disconnection. Therapy helps to validate these feelings and help you feel less alone.

Teach coping mechanisms

Through therapy, you can learn new skills and strategies to manage your feelings and stress responses, allowing you to break free from the grip of trauma. Although long-term therapy treats the core of the trauma, regulation tactics are necessary to help manage daily life experiences that may be triggering. Such tactics provide more awareness and help create more feelings of safety and control at the moment.

What are some different types of Trauma Therapy?

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

Cognitive Processing Therapy is a specific type of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy specifically geared towards treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those who have experienced trauma from violence, natural disasters, or abuse may benefit from this therapy.

Similar to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which involves evaluating belief systems and cognitive distortions, CPT centers on the negative belief patterns held by individuals who have experienced trauma, particularly with regard to their perception of themselves and the world. CPT deals with the rational side of the brain using a “top-down” approach to moving through trauma, which studies how the mind interprets information.

CPT is a shorter-term therapy, typically spanning up to 12 sessions. The treatment begins with psychoeducation, which aids trauma survivors in comprehending the impact of trauma on their thoughts and beliefs. During this period, you also acquire coping skills. Therapists may guide you in addressing areas like safety, trust, power, control, self-esteem, and intimacy, as these are all aspects that traumatic experiences can affect.

Cognitive restructuring stands as a crucial element within CPT. It revolves around questioning and altering unhelpful beliefs, like “It’s my fault for what happened” or “The world is unsafe.” In a collaborative partnership with your therapist, you acquire the skill of reassessing your thoughts and substituting them with more constructive and realistic beliefs.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is perhaps one of the most well-known and commonly used therapies in treating PTSD. This evidence-based treatment approach involves gradually and safely exposing you to your traumatic memories or situations that trigger your trauma-related symptoms.

Exposure therapy uses habituation, a process where you become accustomed to traumatic memories in a safe environment. It works by repeatedly exposing you to your triggers in a controlled and supportive setting. Instead of avoiding the triggers, this approach helps rewire and develop healthier reactions to thoughts and emotions connected to trauma.

The therapist guides you through a detailed retelling of your traumatic experience, encouraging you to fully engage with the thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations associated with the trauma.

This method, known as imaginal exposure, allows the individual to confront and process the traumatic memories, often reducing the intensity of their distress. It caters to your specific needs and preferences.

Another method used by Exposure Therapy is in vivo exposure, which involves confronting real-life situations that are closely related to your trauma symptoms.

Though reprocessing trauma can be painful, overall prolonged exposure therapy can leave you with a sense of empowerment, improved quality of life, less avoidance, enhanced coping skills, and emotional regulation.

Somatic Therapy

According to Bessel Van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma often gets stuck in the body when you enter a state of hyper or hypo arousal or overstimulation or freeze. For this reason, people affected by trauma often have a dysregulated or fragmented sense of their physical experiences and need to reintroduce sensational awareness into their healing. Holding on to emotions and trauma can leave imprints on the body, resulting in chronic pain and emotional distress.

Somatic therapy enables you to center your attention on bodily sensations, movements, and emotions you encounter in a secure and harmonious way. Body scans, yoga, dance, and breathing exercises are all examples of practices in somatic therapy.

Practicing somatic therapy with a trauma-informed therapist can help move and resolve trauma, increase feelings of confidence and safety within the body, help you regulate distressing situations, connect your body and mind, and release stored tension.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Francine Shapiro discovered the benefits of bilateral eye movements while on an outdoor walk. During her saunter, she observed that her back-and-forth eye movements as she scanned her surroundings appeared to alleviate her own distressing thoughts. This observation prompted her to conduct further research, leading to the development and testing of EMDR.

EDMR uses an eight-part stage approach involving psychoeducation on the process, assessing symptoms, desensitization of memories, image replacement, and body scans. The bilateral eye movements are said to emulate the REM stage of sleep, which works to reconsolidate memories and process information. The focus on the eye movements creates dual attention to reduce overwhelm and increase focus on traumatic images.

By addressing the root cause of the trauma, EMDR can help you develop new perspectives and beliefs about yourself and your experiences. This can lead to a significant reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life in the long run.

Psychodynamic therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is a kind of talk therapy where your therapist will help you explore your unconscious mind to discover patterns and links to past events that could affect your present life. The goal is to gain insight into the underlying causes of trauma and work towards resolving these issues.

The relationship between you and your therapist is essential for this type of therapy, as open and honest dialogue is crucial for creating trust and comfort to explore potentially painful subject matters. It operates on the idea of transference, which occurs when you project your feelings and emotions on the therapist. The therapist uses these transference reactions as opportunities for exploration and insight, helping you understand how past dynamics may influence your current perceptions and reactions. The process may be significantly longer than other forms of therapy as it takes time to identify patterns and underlying beliefs.

Through creating awareness of your patterns, psychodynamic therapy can bring perspective into your emotional life and help you express yourself and regulate your emotions in healthy ways more positively.

Accelerated Resolution Therapy

In relation to other therapies, Accelerated Resolution Therapy is newer on the scene of trauma healing and is rapidly gaining attention for its success in quickly treating trauma. ART combines several of the well-known trauma therapies listed above. The result is resolution in a shorter time, usually in as little as two to five sessions, much quicker than other modalities.

ART employs a bottom-up approach, which involves communicating with the parts of you impacted by trauma by engaging regions of the brain unrelated to language or rational thought.

Your session will focus on bodily sensations, emotions, and sensory perceptions. As you move and relax your body, your mind becomes more receptive to change. Bilateral eye movements are a crucial component in ART for setting the stage for change and creating this relaxation.

In contrast to other trauma therapies that heavily rely on talk therapy and detailed recounting of traumatic events, ART takes a bottom-up approach. It communicates with the affected parts of the brain to promote healing.

Why do many therapists prefer ART?

Although other trauma therapies have been around for a longer time than ART, therapists are finding they prefer it to other longer-used methods such as Exposure Therapy, Psychodynamic therapy, CBT, and EDMR. ART‘s format is flexible to include the most important relevant elements from each of these.

One of the key benefits of ART is its ability to minimize distress during the therapy process. Traditional trauma therapies often require individuals to repeatedly relive traumatic events, which can be emotionally exhausting and retraumatizing. ART aims to reduce distress by actively reshaping the narrative and emotional charge associated with the traumatic memory. Individuals regain a sense of control and empowerment, reducing the emotional impact of the trauma.

Positive changes through ART can be witnessed in a relatively short amount of time, often as little as one to five sessions. When results are noticed this quickly during treatment, it provides you with more hope and gives you a jump start on making significant life changes, minimizing the time spent from the impact of trauma.

Learn more about why ART therapy may be an excellent fit for treating your trauma in a safe, comfortable, supportive environment. Find an ART-trained therapist near you.


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