Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s commonly associated with combat and war veterans, but the truth is, it can affect anyone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. 

PTSD is a type of anxiety marked by powerful feelings of fear, stress, worry, or apprehension. Symptoms can include flashbacks and nightmares that are so intense they interfere with daily life and functioning.

Here, we’re reviewing four types of therapy that are commonly used to help people who are trying to figure out how to deal with PTSD. If you’ve been affected by trauma, know someone who has dealt with trauma, or have been dating someone with PTSD, these therapies can help to adjust and cope with the haunting experiences. Keep in mind, it’s important to address PTSD as soon as possible, as symptoms typically worsen with time.

Note: Many people with PTSD avoid seeking a treatment option and attempt to self-medicate to numb the emotional pain they’re feeling. This can be problematic for several reasons. Perhaps most pressing is the fact that research links PTSD to a higher risk of suicide. Accepting and engaging in PTSD-specific therapy can literally save your life.

Types of Therapy for PTSD

Trauma can be sexual, psychological, emotional, or physical. Determining what the best therapy for trauma is can be a bit tricky, as you will need to know the differing types of PTSD first. Various types of therapy exist depending on your PTSD severity. Once you discover the best type of therapy for you, it can teach you how to identify and manage triggers so you can regain control of your life.

Prescription medications for PTSD may also be used as a treatment option along with therapy, to maximize benefits, especially in the initial stages of healing. However, the goal of therapy is to teach you how to learn to anticipate, recognize, and cope with your symptoms, not rely on pharmaceuticals long-term.

A common goal of all types of PTSD therapy is to teach you effective coping skills to manage your condition. This can include things like relaxation meditations, breathing control (pranayama), stress-busting exercises, and healthy eating and sleeping habits. All of these can contribute to how you feel at any given moment. Learning new skills that might enhance the rest of your life is worth the time and energy you’ll invest into your therapy.

“Living with PTSD can feel deeply confusing, especially if you don’t know you have it. Sometimes, getting a diagnosis of PTSD can be a supportive first step in helping you understand why you feel the way you do, or why you act the way you do, so that you can determine the best next steps to help you heal; finding the right therapist or psychiatrist for you who specializes in trauma is key.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

The four main PTSD symptom types are negative thinking, a physical/emotional reaction, an invasive traumatic memory, and avoidance.  Each of the following types of therapy utilizes goal-specific techniques based on your direct needs and symptoms. Everyone with PTSD has a unique experience, history, and symptoms. There’s no singular approach or one-size-fits-all therapy that works equally for all.

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)

CPT is a specified type of cognitive therapy that typically involves 12 weeks of PTSD treatment. Weekly sessions are often between 45 and 90 minutes each. The process involves exploring precisely what’s causing the traumatic memory to resurface and then learning how to cope with them effectively until you get to the point where they no longer have a debilitating effect.

A common approach to cognitive therapy is, with the guidance of an expert therapist, to explore traumatic events by writing them down in as much detail as you can remember. Then, your therapist will deep dive with you to explore and understand how you can manage your memories more effectively so they no longer disturb your life. At the very least, memories can be reduced in intensity and frequency.

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

Many people with PTSD avoid painful memories, objects, or situations that remind them of their past trauma. Prolonged exposure therapy does the opposite of this, by intentionally placing you in a position where you have to explore your traumatic experience. Prolonged exposure therapy typically requires 8 – 15 weekly sessions that last between 60 – 90 minutes per session.

In early PTSD treatment, you’ll learn breathing and relaxation techniques that can ease feelings of fear and apprehension. These coping mechanisms will help you explore trauma therapy in a controlled, safe environment. You’ll learn to anticipate and proactively handle your PTSD symptoms with this direct-approach therapy. Over time, you’ll be able to increase your tolerance until you are able to reengage with the people, places, and things you had previously been avoiding. 

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR therapy doesn’t necessarily involve talking with your therapist in the traditional way you may think about therapy. Yes, you’ll still focus on the specifics of your past trauma, but during EMDR sessions, you’ll recall your experience while your therapist performs some mechanical action — like flashing a light, moving the hands, or creating sound. The goal is to “reprocess” how you think about your experience so it can become less painful and a more doable act. EMDR therapy typically requires 3 months of weekly 60 to 90-minute sessions.

Stress Inoculation Training (SIT)

Stress inoculation training (SIT) is yet another type of cognitive behavioral therapy. It involves roughly 3 months of weekly sessions that can range from 60 to 90-minutes each. SIT involves individual or group therapy, and there’s no pressure for you to delve into the details of your trauma unless you want to. This trauma therapy focuses on breathing techniques, meditation, and other methods for combating negative thought patterns associated with PTSD or other anxiety disorders.

Medication

When you’re living with PTSD, you process threatening thoughts differently. This happens, in part, due to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters being out-of-balance. In many cases, people with PTSD have easily triggered fight-or-flight responses, which are instinctive physiological reactions to a stimulus that’s perceived as threatening.

If you have PTSD, you may feel like you’re always “on the edge” of some undefined doom. It can make you nervous, jumpy, and unsure of how to feel.

When it comes to treating PTSD, there are several medications available that can potentially help. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and Serotonin and Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) that help reduce PTSD symptoms include:

  • Zoloft* (sertraline)
  • Paxil* (paroxetine)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Effexor (venlafaxine)

*Note these are the only FDA-approved drugs to treat PTSD

In combination with your therapy, a psychiatrist may prescribe medications for PTSD. They can include antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs), beta-blockers, or benzodiazepines. Prazosin, an alpha-1 blocker, is also commonly used to help reduce or eliminate nightmares associated with trauma.

“Working with both a trauma-informed therapist and a psychiatrist who can collaborate with you on your care can be a supportive way to help you heal from your trauma. It may feel really hard at times, but know that you can do this, you won’t feel this way forever, and there are many supporters out there who are rooting for you and want to help you recover.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Remember that medications are designed for short-term use to help you through particularly rough times. As you develop coping skills and become able to manage your PTSD symptoms better, you’ll likely find that you need less medication.

Finding a Therapist for PTSD

If you’ve been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or you think that you might have it, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a trained therapist for in-person or online therapy, who can give you an official diagnosis. The sooner you understand and learn coping methods, the sooner you can begin on your path to healing and greater happiness.

Therapy for PTSD is highly effective for most people. It can help you anticipate, analyze, and navigate your way through negative thoughts and feelings associated with past trauma. CBT and other types of psychotherapy are effective for sexual, physical, emotional, and even psychological trauma. The best therapy for PTSD will depend on you and your specific situation.

Talkspace has licensed therapists and psychiatric clinicians who can offer you the help you’ve been looking for. Our unique approach to therapy makes healing convenient, easy, and affordable. Reach out today to learn more about which types of therapy for PTSD might be best for your healing.