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Evidence-Based Trauma-Focused Psychotherapy

healthcare provider speaking with soldier

Army photo by Staff Sgt. Charles Metts

Warriors who have experienced trauma may need ongoing help to cope with their symptoms. Trauma can lead to anxiety, sadness or trouble sleeping. Untreated, these symptoms can cause depression, substance misuse, posttraumatic stress disorder and more. Estimates vary, but 13–30 percent of veterans may experience PTSD.

A growing body of research supports the use of trauma-focused psychotherapy as the preferred method to treat symptoms of trauma. This type of therapy offers greater and longer lasting positive change than medication or non-trauma focused therapy. Before exploring possible treatments, however, it is important to understand trauma and the effects it can have on you.

Understanding Trauma

You can experience trauma when deployed or at home and with or without physical injury. You may be dealing with trauma if you:

  • Experienced an event like a natural disaster, sexual assault, the threat of death, death of others or serious injury
  • Learned about traumatic events, like the loss of a loved one
  • Heard or saw second-hand details of a traumatic event over and over, while in the line of duty

If you’re unsure whether you are experiencing symptoms of trauma, talk to a health care provider. You can use a checklist from the National Center for PTSD to help you prepare to talk about your symptoms which may include:

  • Reliving the event through flashbacks or nightmares
  • Avoiding people or places that remind you of the event
  • Feeling uninterested in things you used to enjoy
  • Being unable to trust people
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Experiencing sleep difficulties

Discuss your checklist and if you need treatment with your health care provider.

Treatment Options for Trauma

Trauma-focused psychotherapies are the most recommended. They focus on the memory or meaning of the traumatic event. There are many types including:

  • Prolonged exposure therapy (PE): Your provider will ask you to repeatedly describe the traumatic event. Your provider may also ask you to do things you have avoided until memories of your trauma no longer upset you.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): While thinking about or discussing your memories, you are taught to shift your focus away from the memories. You may focus on eye movements or tapping instead. This can help change how you react to memories of your trauma.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): This type of therapy teaches you skills to change negative thoughts and beliefs associated with your trauma so they become less distressing. You can then change how you feel and your behavior.

PE and CPT may improve your symptoms after just a few months of treatment. These treatment plans usually include eight to 15 sessions. EMDR also helps many patients. It can be used alone or with other therapies.

Other effective treatments include brief eclectic psychotherapy and narrative exposure therapy. Your provider may also recommend a medication-based treatment plan. You can learn more through your provider and the National Center for PTSD.

As you seek treatment, you can use the PTSD Treatment Decision Aid to help you talk to your provider.

Getting Help for Trauma: Treatment Works

Treatment works. Many service members and veterans who get treatment see their symptoms improve or stop over time. It is important to work with a provider to find the treatment that works best for you. Everyone’s experience with trauma is different.

Remember, reaching out is a sign of strength. If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants, call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also visit our “Seek Help, Find Care” page to see a list of key psychological health resources.

Additional Resources:

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