Posted on February 25, 2020
What is trauma focused therapy? Read on to learn more about what this therapy entails, and how it helps trauma survivors.
When we talk about therapy, it can conjure stereotypical scenes of a therapist in a chair with a notebook, and a patient reclined on a sofa relaying strange dreams or untoward thoughts. But therapy is so much more than talking out your problems. There are many different kinds of therapies, including trauma focused therapy. A therapist matching service is a great resource to find the right professional.
Therapy is a practice that provides a safe and confidential place for a person to talk to a professional about personal experiences, thoughts, feelings, or problems. Patients who choose therapy may have experienced childhood trauma symptoms, traumatic life events, an ongoing situation, or are experiencing negative thoughts, mood swings, depression, or the ability to relate to others. It doesn’t always have to be serious, or when there’s already a problem, a person may also seek out therapy because they want a neutral and safe place to talk about general life experiences with an unbiased professional. Additionally, there are many different types of people who go into therapy, from children to adults, to someone that is loving a trauma survivor. Even therapists seek help.
Though there are still lingering stigmas around mental health, everyone needs somewhere they feel safe and supported, and therapy can provide just that. The role of the therapist is to help a person understand their situation, share strategies for better self-expression, and provide a patient with coping skills for stressful situations. A therapist can also offer a patient or patient’s family tools to manage living with complex PTSD, complicated feelings, or negative thoughts and behaviors that can affect not just the patient, but the loved ones around them.
What is Trauma?
Every person will likely experience trauma at some point in their lives. But not everyone will be exposed to a form of severe trauma, such as a one-time event or a long-lasting repetitive traumatic situation. Examples of trauma are different forms of violence, child abuse, domestic violence, military combat, car accidents, natural disasters, life-threatening illness, terrorist attacks, or prolonged neglect. The origins of the word “trauma” come from the Greek term for penetration or wounding, which is indicative of the depth and breadth of trauma’s impact. For most of history, trauma was generally not widely recognized or seriously considered as a psychological injury until Freud’s psychoanalysis in the late 1800s. Even in the last few hundred years, definitions and conceptualizations of trauma have changed, as have the practices and methodology for treating it.
Put plainly, trauma is the direct personal experience of an event that involves actual, threatened, witnessed, or learned about death, serious injury, or severe harm of themselves or a loved one. The victim’s response to this event involves intense fear, helplessness, horror, and agitated behavior.
The Impact of Trauma
Trauma is like the events themselves, in that it’s all individual and on a case by case basis. Whether the trauma is from a one-time event or long-lasting repetitive events, often called complex trauma, it truly affects everyone differently. The residual impact of a traumatic event in someone’s life can be so subtle that it’s almost undetectable or can elicit outwardly destructive behavior. This can depend on many factors, including what the actual traumatic event was, where the victim was in his or her developmental process, the meaning of the trauma, and other socio-cultural elements. Typically, the impact of trauma fades relatively quickly. It could easily be resolved in just a few months, with individuals exhibiting resilient responses or brief symptoms that fall short of an official diagnosis. For others, a trauma disorder can persist for years and even decades. These lingering effects of complex trauma are usually diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Additionally, living with Complex PTSD can take a major toll on mental health and usually requires therapeutic intervention.
What is Trauma-Focused Therapy?
Now that we have a basic understanding of therapy let’s talk about trauma-focused therapy. This is a specific approach to therapy that recognizes and emphasizes understanding how a traumatic experience can impact a person’s mental, behavioral, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being. This type of therapy is fundamentally about the connection between traumatic life events and emotional and behavioral responses, and the practice is aimed at providing skills and coping tools to assist the victim with better emotional processing. The goal is to help the patient ultimately gain a healthier and more adaptive meaning of their post-traumatic stress so that they can function without negative thoughts and actions that hinder their everyday life.
In general, trauma based therapy recognizes the impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery through signs and symptoms in clients and their families. This type of therapy fully integrates knowledge about trauma into its policies and practices.
Benefits of Trauma Focused Therapy
When a person has experienced trauma, whether it be a particular event or a long-term situation, trauma-focused treatment can be a highly effective way to overcome negative thinking and behaviors that were formed as a direct result of the trauma. By engaging in trauma-focused treatment, rather than more general types of therapy, it’s easier to address concerns specifically related to the trauma and regulate symptoms of PTSD.
That’s because trauma-focused therapy provides a space for the patient and their families to become educated on what is and is not a normal response to trauma, and specifically how a traumatic event could impact the entire family. It helps them assess various emotional and behavioral problems that could be occurring. This type of discovery and learning helps not only the patient, but also their support network to digest why specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviors might occur, gives names and explanations to his/her experiences, and is a reminder that the patient is not in this alone.
A trauma focused therapy treatment can help the patient re-establish safety, identify triggers to be avoided in the future, develop healthy coping skills, and decrease overall post-traumatic stress symptoms. The approach will vary with each practitioner and case. Typically, trauma focused therapy activities include creative exercises that address memories, emotions, or behavior problems that are associated with the trauma disorder. This type of therapy is conducted sensitively and often used in conjunction with relaxation exercises.
What Is Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)?
Trauma focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is an evidence-based treatment model designed to assist patients and their families in overcoming the harmful effects of a traumatic experience. This evidence-based treatment method has been proven effective for treatment after multiple traumas or a single traumatic event, and therapists trained in TF-CBT are frequently able to help victims experiencing the emotional effects of trauma address and resolve these effects.
In TF-CBT, interventions specifically tailored to meet the needs of victims experiencing emotional and psychological difficulties as a result of trauma through humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, and familial strategies. This treatment is meant to be short-term and generally lasts no more than 16 sessions.
The hope is that patients become better able to process emotions and thoughts relating to their traumatic experience through TF-CBT therapy, which can provide the necessary tools to alleviate the overwhelming thoughts causing stress, anxiety, and depression. TF-CBT can equip people who have experienced trauma with coping mechanisms to manage their difficult emotions better. Aside from coping exercises, TF-CBT promises a secure and stable environment for the patient to disclose sensitive details of the trauma.
Trained therapists are then able to show patients how their perceptions may be distorted and then teach tools to reframe those false perceptions and regulate their symptoms of PTSD. TF-CBT is a skills-based therapy that requires patients and their support system of loved ones to practice its components to see real success.
What to Look for In A Trauma Focused Therapist
If trauma focused therapy is right for you or a loved one, then seeking out the right therapist should be at the top of your priority list. After all, loving a trauma survivor can often feel overwhelming, so seeking the appropriate treatment for post-traumatic stress will only prove beneficial. But how do you go about finding the right match? You should use therapy matching services to look for a provider who has received adequate training, supervision, and consultation in trauma focused therapy or TF-CBT if that feels like a better fit. In fact, there is a TF-CBT certification for therapists who practice this method. If feasible, you should have an opportunity to interview potential TF-CBT therapists before beginning treatment so that you know you can fully open and allow the therapy to be effective. You can also feel free to ask specific questions like:
Any reputable therapist will gladly be able to answer any of these questions, which will put your mind at ease. If you don’t trust your therapist in the process, it will be difficult to see real results because it will be challenging to open up and really get to the root of the problem. If you feel confident after an interview and getting all your questions answered, then you’re ready to begin trauma focused therapy and start feeling better.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.