When Talk Therapy Fails To Heal PTSD

March 6, 2013 Michele Rosenthal

Talk therapy takes you only so far in PTSD recovery. Studies show that PTSD affects more than your brain. Talk therapy won't cure PTSD alone. Learn what can.

In last week's post I described the two parts of your brain, how they function, how they're different and how and why talk therapy fails to do the deep work of healing that PTSD requires. After reading that you may wonder: Great, what do I do now??

While there is no single guaranteed way to heal PTSD (we're all different in how we experience trauma and process information and emotion) there are some terrific PTSD treatment processes that can bypass your critical, rational mind and engage your deeper brain in enormously healing ways.

Talk Therapy Isn't the Only PTSD Therapy

Studies have proven that the body and mind record, process and hold onto trauma in terrifically meaningful (and stubborn!) ways. This fact has large implications for PTSD recovery. First, it means that different body processes that get stuck in survival mode would, naturally, require different types of treatment approaches. Second, it explains why you can do a lot of work in one area and not see results in another. You're not crazy; your systems all just need individual attention.

When approaching posttraumatic stress disorder recovery it helps to understand both sides of your mind, and also the structure of your brain. You have three layers of brain function:

  • Reptilian - The seat of your instincts and arousal
  • Limbic - The core of your emotional experience
  • Cortex - Your thought processing center

All three of these systems get out of sync after trauma, each doing what they feel is important in order for you as an organism to survive. In healing, all three of these layers need to be addressed, accessed and helped to recalibrate. The problem: your reptilian and limbic systems cannot be addressed by thinking. They are physical bodily processes and require less thinking-driven treatment modalities.

We tend to think of healing as an intellectual process, but when you consider Dr. Ron Siegel's statement, "Emotion is a body event," you begin to understand that healing has to do with a lot more than just talking or thinking; it has to be translated into information that many different aspects of your mind and body understand.

Talk Therapy Is For Your Brain; Other PTSD Therapies Treat The Rest of You

What to do about these differences when it comes to healing? Branch out in your recovery to identify alternative methods of PTSD treatment. Talk therapy is a terrific base. In allowing you to find words to express what you're thinking and feeling talk therapy can actually significantly help you amp up the processing of your left prefrontal lobe (which holds your language center) and empower you to take control over your memories. When you feel you've got a significant amount of talking done and are ready to look for additional support there are many processes to choose from. Some of my favorites:

This is not an exhaustive list but can get you going in finding new methods to add to your recovery process.

We're all completely individual in healing. Your process will be as unique as your handprint, so it's up to you to find approaches that resonate with you, give them a try, build from one technique to the other and keep going until you reach the state of healing you seek. In my own recovery I used 10 techniques in a combination of traditional and alternative processes until I reached freedom. The same result may happen for you when you widen the lens of how you approach the journey.

Michele is the author of Your Life After Trauma: Powerful Practices to Reclaim Your Identity. Connect with her on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and her website,

APA Reference
Rosenthal, M. (2013, March 6). When Talk Therapy Fails To Heal PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 15 from

Author: Michele Rosenthal

March, 10 2016 at 12:24 pm

Mental health help is unavailable here until someone attempts suicide and even then there is a waiting list. I suffer PTSD which I had self diagnosed as Adrenal fatigue. Have found articles where it is believed to be the same thing. I have found some relief with addressing the physical symptoms using Ashwaganda as well as valerian for sleep. Am going to try Adrenal gland therapy next. Because everyone is so individual when it comes to therapy and what works, I have been willing to give anything a shot. I felt some disappointment when some treatments have not worked which makes me grateful for this article knowing that I am not faulty just because a given treatment is not working. I may never find the cure I am looking for like the trauma never happened but I have a belief I will be better than I am now.

October, 22 2014 at 5:11 pm

PTSD Trauma from the time I was three years old I was sexually assualted by my father and his sister. Both of them had to stop because my mother was pregant with her last child and he beat her so bad she had to go to the hospital and was given a choice leave him or they will take all of her children. So when her choice was her children but make sure she never to hurt us by beating us wiht extension cord, stick, belt's, the sexual abuse started up again for me, brother, his friends, my moter's second husband the priest of the school I went to Sacred Heart.At thirteen I knew I had to get out of my mother's house, was she protecting me. I ra n away and when I was found my mother and step father didn't do any thing that night but when my stepfather left my mother beat the hell out of me I could go to school. I knew I had to get out. It took me two years to save money and make my escape. I was going out with a little old than me and I made sure to ger pregant by him which I ended up getting pregant at 15 years old him he was 19 going on 20 my mother forced me to marry him. What a mistake, after our son was born he moved me and our son to another state and I was put into working at a massage palor. When I said no I put his had around my neck and I ended up passing out when I can too I was to thank him for saving my life and I was told where I woud be working for the next three years, Parlor's, when they were closed and he prostitued me. postitution. I could go with the year I had to say with him but I guess I want to see if someone is reading

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 12 2015 at 3:37 pm

Please look for the nearest advocacy center to you. A lot of trauma work needs to be done and at times services are free. Look up TIR.ORG and find a site for yourself. Get yourself stronger and better.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 27 2016 at 9:54 pm

I am replying 18 months after you wrote your post. I hear you, I hear how horrendous your childhood was and how much pain it caused you. I don't know what country you are in or city. I would suggest, if your situation hasn't gotten much better, that you google women's shelters/refuges for help. You deserve love and respect, need to get into safe and stable accommodation and then therapy or help groups to begin to recover. Wishing you all the very best to keep your head up and find the support you need.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 15 2018 at 7:54 am

Love to you darling. X

January, 17 2014 at 3:02 am

By the way, talk therapy can stimulate a lot more than the prefrontal and frontal areas. Hippocampus and amygdyla are two other things that can be stimulated, namely, in PTSD treatment

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

August, 30 2016 at 9:18 pm

Samuel, PTSD and Complex PTSD are conditions that respond very poorly to talk therapy. Does talk therapy helps? Yes, it can help, but sometimes it can even retraumatize the person if the practitioner doesn't know how to handle that particular condition. Research in neuroimaging with ptsd and complex PTSD supports the content of this article. The talking part of the brain is not dominant over the emotional part of the brain where PTSD runs the show. I personally have done extensive therapy over 4 years with psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and you name it... and I am almost an expert on the subject because all the books and articles I have read on it and nevertheless, my complex PTSD is alive and kicking. I am almost to the point of giving up actually. I have tried and listened to everyone and I am still dealing with this issues. It's very tiring. Socially and personally the toll is enormous. That's all.

January, 17 2014 at 3:01 am

Are you a psychologist? In psych they teach you how to talk people through PTSD, how to prevent flashbacks when this is happening, and how to take it slowly. Who knows how many people you've prevented from getting help that way.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Michele Rosenthal
January, 22 2014 at 2:52 pm

@Samuel -- You make a very valid point about what talk therapy aims to do. Unfortunately, not all therapists are equally gifted in this process, nor do all trauma survivors uniformly respond to it in positive and useful ways. Because it's important to remember that every survivor is an individual and every recovery is unique it's also important to recognize that not every approach meets with results. This is especially in the case of traditional treatments that are, for some people, incredibly useless. Of the thousands of survivors I've been in contact with over the years, the ones who heal all begin in talk therapy and then seek relief in through other methods when talk therapy fails to deliver the desired results.

Forgiveness and PTSD: Releasing Trauma or Excusing the Guilty? | Trauma! A PTSD Blog
August, 28 2013 at 8:08 am

[...] = 'wpp-261'; var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":true};When it comes to what it takes to heal PTSD, forgiveness is a topic that requires a lot of thought. On the surface, it’s easy to believe that [...]

March, 9 2013 at 10:05 am

Finding a therapy that is evidenced for PTSD is key. Not all therapies are. Do your homework before embarking on talk therapies. Check the therapy is evidenced for your form of psychological distress and check the qualifications of the therapist delivering the therapy!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Michele Rosenthal
March, 12 2013 at 6:53 am

@Jen - Very good advice, thanks for adding your thoughts. I would also say that some very good therapies that have tremendous effect on PTSD recovery are not evidence-based because no one has taken the time, interest or funds to explore them via research. (For example, hypnosis and NLP, both of which I credit for my ultimate recovery.) Which means there are many ways to heal, evidence-based or not, and to me, your real point is so much deeper and more important even than evidence: it's to do your own research as much as possible to be sure that what you're using as a healing modality is appropriate for you. Such an important idea!

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