How Are Trauma and PTSD Treated?
By Lauren Krouse
After experiencing a traumatic event, it’s normal not to feel like yourself. In the weeks that follow, you may struggle with a mix of emotions—from fear and anxiety to numbness and confusion—as your mind replays what happened over and over. In time, you can begin to feel better with support from loved ones. In some cases, however, recovery may take longer or symptoms may worsen, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental health challenges, such as depression or anxiety.
Healing from trauma doesn’t mean you have to constantly relive the experience, but rather that you learn how it affects you so you can develop coping skills and begin to move forward. Whether you’re reeling in the immediate aftermath of the trauma or still feeling down months or years later, you deserve support and you can begin to feel better.
How to Get Help After a Traumatic Event
After a traumatic experience, it’s important to be gentle with yourself and give yourself the time and space you need to process what happened. A great first step is to ask someone you trust for support, whether it’s an adult in your social circle or a peer on the other end of a helpline. You can talk to them about what happened, how it’s affecting you, and what you think would be helpful for you.
How to Get Support to Heal From Trauma
It’s not uncommon to feel the effects of a traumatic event weeks or months later, and to feel like it’s limiting you or preventing you from living your life as you used to. The most important thing is to do what you’re doing already: Don’t ignore what you’re experiencing, and seek out professional help. Ask your primary-care physician for a referral or find a therapist who specializes in trauma. (Trauma specialists should be able to point to specific training they have and groups of people they have experience working with.)
A mental health professional can help determine whether you have PTSD, which can cause many distressing symptoms, such as the feeling that you’re constantly on edge or numb and must avoid any reminders of what happened. They can also screen for related conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and problems with substance use, which often come along with PTSD and can be treated at the same time.
How Is PTSD Treated?
There are many effective treatments for PTSD, including therapy, coping skills, and medication. Some therapies involve going back to specific memories, while others focus on learning how the event or series of events impacts you today. A therapist can help you determine the best approach, so you can learn how trauma may be holding you back and what you can do to cope and reclaim pieces of your life.
Here are a few examples of research-backed therapies for PTSD treatment:
- Trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches you how to identify emotions and calm yourself down, see yourself in a more positive light, and cope with symptoms such as triggers and flashbacks. Your therapist can support you as you find and practice grounding techniques or coping skills that help ground you in the present. In particular, this is a great option for children and adolescents.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT) helps you challenge black-and-white beliefs and see things from a more flexible perspective. Trauma often shrinks your world and cuts you off from others, but changing your relationship to your thoughts can help open you up to new possibilities, connections, and ways of being in the world.
- Prolonged exposure therapy helps you stop avoiding trauma-related memories and situations by listing out your fears and very gradually exposing yourself to them. With the support and guidance of a therapist, you begin with mild fears, such as sitting behind the wheel again after a serious car accident, and build up to bigger ones, such as driving on a highway. These steps can help you dial down anxiety and expand your map again.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) involves focusing on one traumatic memory, which sometimes represents a variety of related traumatic experiences. You then process that memory in a safe and supportive environment, focusing on buzzers in your palms, a repetitive sound, or an image that bounces back and forth on a screen. Researchers are still sorting out exactly how EMDR works, but they believe the key is making space to process the memory in a way your mind and body could not in the moment. Many clinicians of color believe EMDR can be more useful for recovering from violence or marginalization like racism.
Coping skills are an essential piece of PTSD treatment. Your therapist can help you build a self-care plan by reflecting on the best ways to take care of yourself when you’re feeling the impact of the trauma. For example, you may ask yourself:
- Who can I reach out to when things get overwhelming or I feel hopeless?
- How can I carve out time for self-care, such as movement, hobbies, meditation, or yoga?
- What can I do to stay present and calm down when memories of trauma become overwhelming?
Along with therapy and coping skills, you may also benefit from medication to treat anxiety, depression, or PTSD-related nightmares.
No Matter What Path You Take, You Deserve Support
Struggling after trauma is not a sign of weakness. It’s your mind and body’s response to a major source of stress and anxiety. Speaking up and asking for help, on the other hand, is a true sign of strength. Research has repeatedly shown that healing from trauma isn’t a matter of sheer willpower. You need support from other people—your loved ones, fellow survivors, doctors, therapists, friends, and mentors.
Even when it comes to treatment for PTSD, experts have learned the type of therapy matters less than the therapeutic alliance, or the relationship you have to your therapist, and the belief that they can help you as you forge a new path forward. It may take a few appointments or different therapists to find the right fit, but don’t give up. Keep searching until you connect with someone who makes you feel heard and supported. There are resources and people out there who want to help.
Along the way, be gentle with yourself. There’s no perfect timeline or ending point for when you’ll get over trauma, but you can learn to embrace the journey, begin to heal, and find joy again.