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Is Trauma-Focused Therapy Imperative for Trauma Survivors?

What is trauma-focused therapy, and how important is it for trauma survivors? Find out here at HealthyPlace.

Trauma-focused therapy is an approach that recognizes and emphasizes how trauma affects a person's life. It examines the mental, behavioral, emotional, physical and spiritual effects of trauma while offering skills and strategies to improve the client's ability to process and cope with their emotions. Trauma-focused therapy is a therapeutic approach in its own right, and it's one that has a particular framework. Let's look at the important role of trauma-focused therapy for adults as well as children, and what to expect in terms of techniques, goals and benefits.

What Is the Definition of Trauma-Focused Therapy?

Trauma-focused (sometimes referred to as ‘trauma-informed') therapy refers to an approach practiced by a program, organization or system that is trauma-informed. It aims to help the client or patient find healthier and more adaptive meaning to the traumatic event they experienced.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), therapy is ‘trauma-focused' if it meets the following criteria:

  • Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and helps the person understand and follow paths to recovery
  • Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma
  • Responds to trauma by integrating knowledge about trauma and its effects into policies, practices and procedures
  • Seeks to avoid and resist re-traumatization

Trauma-focused therapy is imperative because it aims to re-establish a sense of safety for the person affected, help them identify their triggers and develop healthy coping skills. It can be applied to people of all ages in a number of different settings.

What Is Trauma-Focused Therapy for Children?

In children, trauma-focused therapy will typically involve techniques used in play therapy, art therapy and talking therapy. These approaches will help the child practice trauma processing in a safe space. This may take place with or without a parent present.

In the short-term, the main focus will be to allow the child to feel safe and work through presenting symptoms, such as night terrors, anxiety or inability to communicate. Longer-term, the therapist may work sensitively to assist the child in a re-telling of their own story. This way, the child can gradually process the trauma, integrate it into the world around them and build up resilience and coping skills for the future.

How Is Trauma-Focused Therapy Different for Adults?

Trauma-focused therapy for adults looks slightly different. It usually draws on psychological treatments or behavioral techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). If you're presenting signs of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an adult, your therapist will work with you to process your trauma and alleviate your symptoms.

In trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for adults, techniques may include:

Imaginal exposure: This is where you may ‘re-live' the traumatic event. You might provide a verbal commentary for your therapist about images you see or sounds you hear, until the trauma is processed as a memory rather than something you feel is happening over and over again. If you aren't able to talk about your trauma, your therapist may draw on narrative therapy and suggest you “re-write” your story

In-vivo exposure: In situations where it is safe to do so, you may be invited to revisit the source of your trauma (for example, driving a car again after an accident or visiting the place you were attacked). The purpose of this is so you can see the feared situation is no longer dangerous.

Thought stopping: This is a CBT technique that can help you overcome distressing or obsessive thoughts

Stress management: Other techniques will encourage relaxation, breathing techniques and meditation to help relieve stress and anxiety associated with the trauma.

Many of the techniques used in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy for adults – and indeed trauma-focused therapy in general – overlap with other therapeutic models. It's important, however, that any therapist working with traumatized patients is trained and qualified to do so, and that they are trauma-informed.

Numerous studies have shown that providing care in a trauma-informed manner improves health outcomes and that leaving trauma untreated can lead to issues such as addiction and poor physical health. If you think you could benefit from trauma-informed therapy, talk to your healthcare provider.

article references

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2019, September 26). Is Trauma-Focused Therapy Imperative for Trauma Survivors?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/mental-illness-overview/is-trauma-focused-therapy-imperative-for-trauma-survivors

Last Updated: October 15, 2019
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Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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