Four Ways Trauma Therapy Can Help You Cope With Your Past

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 9, 2024by Regain Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Trauma-focused therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR, and exposure therapy, can help you cope with your past in many ways. For instance, it can help you recognize and validate your trauma, learn effective coping mechanisms, build confidence, and live in the present. You may find a trauma therapist who specializes in trauma-informed care in your local area or through an online therapy platform.

What is trauma?

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You don't have to work through your trauma alone

Psychological trauma can lead to an altered or damaged state of mind due to an especially distressing event or circumstance. While some people believe trauma is limited to horrific experiences, trauma can come in many forms. If an event leaves you unable to cope and with an altered, lessened quality of life, you may have experienced trauma.

Sometimes trauma can be the result of a single traumatic event, such as being mugged, whereas other times, it may be caused by prolonged exposure to multiple traumatic events, such as being raised by an abusive caregiver*. The latter is sometimes called complex trauma. Everyone tends to process trauma differently and at different rates. The effects of trauma can manifest in many different ways, both physical and emotional: migraines, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can all be possible consequences of experiencing trauma.

*If you or a loved one is experiencing any type of abuse, please know that help is available. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


What is trauma therapy?

Trauma therapy – which is perhaps more broadly known as trauma-informed therapy – is a type of therapy generally based on in-depth research that normally aims to help you understand trauma and its effects, cope with symptoms in a healthier way, and improve mental health. Trauma therapy is typically tailored to those who have experienced a traumatic event, and its core goals can include facing your trauma, changing negative associations, and minimizing your trauma symptoms. Trauma therapy can be especially beneficial to those living with post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and specific phobias.

Trauma-focused therapy is evidence-based, which generally means that documented scientific studies have verified its effectiveness. Due to the delicate nature of trauma and its potential effects, many trauma therapists and counselors who implement trauma-focused therapy work exclusively with survivors of trauma. 

Types of trauma therapy

Trauma-focused therapy can encompass several different therapeutic techniques. They normally focus on cultivating an improved quality of life and reducing or eliminating symptoms. A few common types of trauma-focused therapy can include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT for short, is generally thought to be one of the most widely used and endorsed forms of trauma therapy. This trauma treatment typically uses your past trauma as a tool to aid you in changing how you cognitively process situations and emotions. This particular trauma-focused therapy can be especially effective in treating young children with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as adults and adolescents who have experienced childhood trauma.

There can be multiple forms of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive processing therapy is a specific type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that usually involves psychotherapy. Cognitive processing therapy can be about 12 sessions long and tends to be tailored to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Your CBT therapist may teach you how to effectively replace negative thoughts, use relaxation techniques, and improve poor behavioral patterns. The use of CBT may enable you to be incredibly involved in your healing process. It can be typical to be assigned homework after each session with this type of treatment.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy

The eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy process is generally designed to relieve some of the discomfort and distress associated with a traumatic event. A typical EMDR session may consist of you reiterating a traumatic experience from your past. This is often done in small doses so as not to overwhelm you. While you recall your trauma, your therapist will usually keep your eyes focused on an external stimulus such as their moving finger.

It’s generally believed that EMDR can be so effective because the contrast between mental and physical stimuli promotes newer, more positive associations with information and past trauma. The World Health Organization has even recommended EMDR therapy to treat stress disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

Exposure therapy

As the name implies, exposure therapy is a form of therapy that usually revolves around being exposed to your trauma. In exposure therapy, you may not always be required to confront your trauma physically. Exposure therapy can be imaginal and may even implement virtual reality to help patients “recreate” traumas that would be particularly difficult to do in reality, such as flying in a plane or experiencing combat.

During exposure therapy, your therapist may take notes about your experiences to determine when and how exposure can begin. You will also likely practice coping mechanisms to relieve the anxiety and traumatic stress that may be associated with exposure to your trauma. This can make exposure therapy a useful PTSD therapy form and an effective tool for those who have experienced childhood trauma.

Prolonged exposure therapy usually involves more sessions than regular exposure therapy and tends to approach the exposure factor more gradually than regular exposure therapy. As with regular exposure therapy, prolonged exposure therapy can be a form of PTSD treatment.

Is trauma therapy right for me?

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With such a wide range of options to choose from, it can be challenging to determine whether trauma therapy may be right for you. You can use the information on common trauma therapy practices to aid you in your decision-making. For example, trauma-focused therapy sometimes requires you to remember your trauma. You may not be ready to recall or relive your experience of trauma, and understandably so. Certain types of trauma therapy, like behavioral therapy, may not work well if you are severely depressed and demotivated. It may be beneficial to start with some simple talk therapy and gradually delve into more trauma-focused therapy as you begin to feel more comfortable. 

While trauma-focused therapy can be an effective anxiety therapy and PTSD therapy, you shouldn’t feel pressured into believing it’s the only option for you. Remember that you may always explore other therapy options that better suit you and your healing process. Most therapists can shift their techniques if you feel uncomfortable or unmotivated; you generally just need to let them know that you feel like a change would be helpful.

Keeping those precautions in mind, trauma-focused therapy can improve the lives of those who have experienced trauma. It can also be important to remember that the world of trauma-focused therapy tends to always be growing and improving. Some of the newer and more technological forms of trauma-focused therapy can improve life quality, according to various studies. Therapists can now use virtual reality to expose you to stimuli. Because there are so many methods of trauma-focused therapy, it’s possible that one of them may help you overcome your trauma.

How trauma therapy can help you cope

Trauma-focused therapy can help you to do the following:

1. Recognize and validate your trauma

Denial can be a natural part of the coping process after experiencing trauma. Denying that you had a traumatic experience can serve as a defense mechanism that prevents you from processing all of your emotions at once. However, denying your trauma for an extended period of time can lead to a myriad of problems. The longer you deny your trauma, the longer you may go without seeking help, which can potentially lead to various mental health challenges.

One of the core goals of trauma-focused therapy is usually to help you work through your trauma rather than around it. Your trauma therapist may create a comfortable and safe environment in which you can accept and come to terms with your trauma, potentially allowing you to safely process all the emotions that you may have been holding back for quite some time.

Because of stereotypes and stigmas attached to trauma and traumatic stress disorders, many people who have had traumatic experiences may not know or believe that they have experienced trauma. Trauma therapists normally won’t judge you or tell you your trauma isn’t real. Instead, your trauma therapist will likely reassure you that your feelings are valid and help you confront your trauma for what it really is.

2. Learn coping mechanisms

Although the traumatic experiences you’ve gone through may not be undone, the effects of your trauma, otherwise known as trauma symptoms, can be managed effectively. Trauma-based therapies often implement different procedures to help you learn to cope with your trauma symptoms. For example, exposure therapy sessions sometimes begin and end with breathing practices, which can quell anxiety and improve cognitive function.

Some forms of trauma, such as childhood trauma, may require a team effort from team who can provide trauma-informed care. Counselors and therapists who use trauma-informed therapy in their practice can teach coping mechanisms to families and teachers of children who have experienced trauma. Someone who has experienced childhood trauma generally needs a strong support system. By helping both families and survivors of childhood trauma cope, therapists can help lighten the load for everyone involved.

Breathing exercises, physical activity, and meditation can all be coping mechanisms in trauma therapy. Some techniques may work better for you than others; if you feel you’re not improving with one coping technique, it can be helpful to let your therapist know so they can help you explore another.

3. Build confidence

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You don't have to work through your trauma alone

4. Live in the present

Of all the core goals of trauma therapy, perhaps the most important may be living a healthy and positive life in the present. All trauma-focused therapies generally aim to:

  • Acknowledge and accept your trauma
  • Work through your trauma so it no longer limits you
  • Learn important coping mechanisms and cognitive skills for long-term improvement
  • Minimize or eliminate trauma-related symptoms
  • Give you tools that allow you to thrive in the present

If you find yourself avoiding situations that remind you of a traumatic event, you may be experiencing symptoms of trauma. Symptoms like hypervigilance, trust issues, and anxiousness may mean that you’re carrying a past traumatic experience everywhere you go, potentially stifling your progress toward a healthier and more productive lifestyle. Trauma-focused therapy can make all the difference through well-researched and well-documented techniques.

Trauma therapy may not be right for everyone, and it does usually require effort on your part. Trauma therapies may regularly assign “homework,” a term used for practice performed outside of your sessions, which can make it a very hands-on form of therapy.

Finding a trauma therapist

Every person who has experienced a traumatic event generally deserves to be happy and feel good. Even if your traumatic experience was years ago, it may never be too late to seek a helping hand. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist and find out if trauma therapy is the right option for you.

If there aren’t any trauma-focused therapists in your local area, or if traditional in-office therapy isn’t comfortable or convenient for you, online therapy may be an excellent alternative. A couple of potential benefits of online therapy can be getting the help you deserve from home and having the option to schedule sessions outside of typical office hours.

As one study explains, online therapy can be highly effective in treating a variety of mental health conditions and challenges, but it can be particularly beneficial for those living with anxiety and the effects of stress, which can be common for those who have experienced trauma.

Takeaway

A few types of trauma-focused therapy can include exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization, and reprocessing therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, all of which can help you cope with your past in several different ways. The benefits of trauma-focused therapy may include helping you:

  • Recognize and validate your trauma
  • Learn effective coping mechanisms
  • Build confidence and self-esteem
  • Live in the present moment

If you’re interested in trying trauma-focused therapy, it can be helpful to join an online therapy platform where you can be matched with an experienced licensed therapist. You may also find a suitable therapist in your local area.

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