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Treatments for Trauma and PTSD

Overview of Evidence-Based Treatments

Trauma can affect all areas of life—but therapies optimized for trauma can be healing. Traumatic experiences can leave a deep imprint on body and mind, affecting mood, relationships and sense of self. 

Trauma can change the brain and nervous system, leading to symptoms of dysregulation, such as depression and anxiety. The impact of trauma can show up immediately or years later.

Around 70% of adults in the United States have experienced at least one trauma in their lives. Not everyone has lasting effects, but 6% of U.S. adults develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many people who develop complex trauma experience repeated events, often stemming from childhood experiences that affect adult life.

There are several evidence-based therapies (EBTs) for trauma and PTSD—interventions proven to work with targeted populations (though not all therapies are EBTs). Trauma therapies focus on soothing the nervous system, integrating traumatic memories and supporting mind-body healing. They help integrate and understand traumatic events. This begins the healing process. While memories of the trauma remain, they have less power over an individual’s emotions and daily life.

Evidence-Based Therapy (EBT) 

Not all mental health treatments are equally effective, and some therapies work better for specific psychological problems than others. Evidence-based therapy (EBT)—often called evidence-based practice (EBP) or empirically supported treatment—applies the best available clinical, scientific evidence to treatments, which are tailored by an experienced therapist (such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, mental health counselor) to meet an individual’s needs, preferences and cultural expectations. 

Although there are a number of EBTs, the most commonly used empirically supported approaches for treating psychological symptoms involve cognitive and behavior therapies (CBT). The efficacy of CBT has been demonstrated for a wide range of symptoms in adults, adolescents and children. 

Scientific evidence is drawn from rigorous, controlled research conducted by multiple teams of investigators, often over decades. Coupled with a therapist’s own expertise and informed clinical experiences, individuals can be better served than by subjective experiences alone. Therapists are human and have their biases. Careful research is the best means of reducing these biases.

For therapists to truly engage in evidence-based practice, they must anchor treatment in the best scientific evidence available and use the techniques and psychological approaches that have scientific support. 

Empirically supported treatments and associated techniques typically have been studied in several large-scale clinical trials, involving thousands of patients and careful comparison of the effects of these versus other types of psychological treatments. Dozens of multi-year studies have shown that empirically supported treatments can reduce symptoms significantly for many years following the end of psychological treatment.

To be effective, psychological treatment needs to be a collaborative process between client and therapist. The therapist interprets the best evidence from clinical research in consideration of the client’s preferences, values, culture and daily life realities. Therapists rely on their own clinical expertise in integrating information to formulate the individual treatment plan. They also rely on their own clinical expertise whenever existing research does not provide sufficient information to address the client’s situation. 

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