The Psychology of Trauma

The Psychological Impact of Trauma

How do we treat the effects of trauma?

For the most part, the aftereffects of trauma are treated by psychotherapy, although the acute symptoms of PTSD may be treated by antianxiety or antidepressant medication. Immediately after an acute trauma, people need help in reducing their autonomic arousal. In other words, they need help calming down. They need to be assured that they are safe and that it is safe to let down their guard. Social support is also extremely important at all points of the recovery process, and groups who undergo traumas together often form very strong bonds.

After the immediate crisis has passed, it is helpful for people to discuss what happened, particularly to share their experiences with other people who have experienced the same trauma. This is where support groups or informal debriefings can be helpful. If symptoms of PTSD develop, individual therapy with cognitive-behavioral techniques can help reduce symptoms. Relaxation techniques can reduce the autonomic hyper-arousal, gradual desensitization can help people overcome tendencies to avoid any reminder of the trauma, and psychoeducation can help people make sense of their reactions to the trauma. Distorted cognitions about the trauma should also be addressed, particularly excessive self-blame.

Self-blame is a common reaction to trauma as it serves to combat the extreme sense of helplessness. “If it was my fault, I’m not helpless.” Likewise, people do need to feel empowered, and constructive actions that grant some sense of control should be encouraged. For example, letter writing to newspapers or government officials, public speaking about the event, and commemoration rituals can all help people feel empowered.


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