Healing from PTSD: Trauma-Informed Approaches and Counseling

You can have good days and bad days when you’ve got PTSD, but the overall effect of living with untreated symptoms can be a diminished quality of life. Treatment can bring symptom relief and greater well-being.
Military man holding his son

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can occur in people who experience a traumatic event, situation or incident.

Once commonly referred to as "shell shock" or "combat fatigue" in soldiers, PTSD is widely understood today as a mental health condition that can afflict anyone who has experienced trauma in the form of physical or emotional violence, a serious accident, a natural disaster or other life-threatening situations. In fact, the psychological trauma of witnessing someone else's shocking or harrowing experience can bring about symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Childhood trauma or abuse can also have adverse effects on mental health in adulthood.

Flashbacks, recurring dreams or intrusive thoughts—some of the hallmarks of active PTSD—can take a heavy and lasting toll on a person's mental health. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, PTSD affects 3.6% of the U.S. adult population. About 37% of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are classified as having severe symptoms. Women are significantly more likely to experience PTSD than men.

PTSD sufferers often describe difficulty controlling their thoughts or emotions—an inability to "just get over it." People with post-traumatic stress disorder can have good days and bad days, but the net effect of living with untreated PTSD symptoms can be a significantly diminished quality of life. The good news is that PTSD symptoms are treatable. Trauma-informed counseling and trauma-focused therapy are effective.

What are the most common PTSD symptoms?

PTSD symptoms and severity vary from person to person depending on several key factors such as the number of traumatic events, the length of time exposed to the trauma or the presence of other co-occurring disorders such as anxiety or addiction. The most common PTSD symptoms include:

  • Recurring, distressing dreams – The content or effect of the dream is related to the traumatic event(s); you may wake up feeling as if you've re-experienced the trauma
  • Flashbacks – Feeling or acting as if the traumatic event(s) are recurring; these flashbacks can range from mild to severe, with the most extreme expression being a complete loss of awareness of your surroundings
  • Intrusive thoughts – "Re-living" a traumatic event through disruptive thoughts and traumatic memories
  • Avoidance of situations – Steering clear of circumstances that remind you of the traumatic event
  • Persistent or exaggerated negative beliefs – These thoughts can be about yourself, others or the world at large
  • Feelings of numbness – An inability to experience happiness, satisfaction or love
  • Memory problems – Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma, typically due to a dissociative amnesia
  • Irritability – Prone to angry outbursts with little or no provocation
  • Easily startled
  • Problems concentrating
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Problems sleeping
  • Hypervigilance – Living in a state of increased alertness and extreme watchfulness

For an individual to be diagnosed with a post-traumatic stress disorder, symptoms are typically present for more than a month and often persist intermittently for months and sometimes years.

What types of treatment or therapies are used to treat PTSD?

Trauma treatment options depend on the severity of symptoms and whether co-occurring conditions are present. Psychologists, therapists, trauma counselors and other mental health treatment providers typically start by conducting an assessment and then developing an individualized treatment plan to address the patient's specific situation. Then, through the ongoing assessment of symptoms, the counselor or therapist adjusts the treatment plan accordingly. PTSD treatment, sometimes referred to as trauma treatment, can involve a number of combined counseling approaches and psychological therapies, mainly:

  • Talk Therapy (Psychotherapy) – Mental health therapists are trained in a number of trauma counseling and trauma therapy approaches designed to help patients learn to cope with or manage symptoms. Trauma-focused counseling may include mindfulness techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and others. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was developed specifically to treat trauma. If EMDR sessions are recommended for your treatment, be sure to work with a trauma counselor who is certified to perform EMDR.
  • Trauma-Informed Treatment – This level of treatment services indicates that all staff in a health care organization (not just therapists and counselors) have been trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in patients and to respond by providing a safe physical and psychological environment for those patients. Trauma-informed treatment settings are designed to empower patients to believe in their resiliency and their ability to heal from trauma.
  • Medications – Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressant drugs are commonly prescribed to relieve symptoms. For most PTSD patients, medications are most effective when paired with talk therapy.
  • Adjunctive Therapies – Relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and equine or canine therapy can help to address symptoms.

How effective is PTSD treatment?

Mental health professionals have identified many proven-effective, trauma-informed treatment methods for PTSD. Ask your therapist or counselor about the evidence-based therapies most suited to your situation. One thing to keep in mind: PTSD symptom relief may not be immediate or permanent, so continue to see your counselor or mental health provider if symptoms persist or reoccur.

Where can I find treatment for PTSD?

Since talk therapy/psychotherapy is an important component of effective treatment, mental health clinics are a good place to start in seeking care. Effective treatment for PTSD begins with a mental health assessment. Trained and licensed psychologists and mental health therapists have the expertise to conduct thorough assessments of trauma symptoms, develop individualized treatment plans and provide individual or group counseling. You may also receive a recommendation to see a psychiatrist to determine whether medication or other therapies are advised. Psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.