Types of Therapy for Trauma Survivors

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the most popular talking therapy, may not always be the most helpful for trauma survivors. 

We can know intellectually that not all of our beliefs are rational. We know that our physical responses are out of proportion to the situation. The real issue is that our irrational beliefs and physical responses often aren’t coming from our rational brain – they’re coming from our deep-seated emotional brain. 

To change this, we need to rewire the emotional brain. 

Here are seven approaches recommended by trauma experts to help rewire our emotional brain:

  1. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  2. Somatic Experiencing (SE)
  3. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy
  4. Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP)
  5. Therapists trained in The Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM)
  6. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)
  7. Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE)

1. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

“Traumatic memories persist as split-off, unmodified images, sensations and feelings. To my mind the most remarkable feature of EMDR is its apparent capacity to activate a series of unsought and seemingly unrelated sensations, emotions, images, and thoughts in conjunction with the original memory. This way of reassembling old information into new packages may be just the way we integrate ordinary, nontraumatic day-to-day experiences.” 

– Bessel van der Kolk

EMDR is a way of stimulating the brain through eye movements which appear to make distressing memories feel less intense. Interestingly, it’s thought to be related to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the period of sleep in which we’re dreaming. EMDR and REM sleep both involve our eyes moving rapidly from side to side.

Research shows that REM sleep in particular is strongly associated with mood regulation—the more REM sleep we get, the less symptoms of depression we experience. 

REM sleep also plays an important role in how memories evolve over time by dissecting how important the memories are to us emotionally. To do this, it seems to use a wider array of associations within the brain.

This has been shown through word association studies—when people are woken after REM sleep, they give more creative responses (e.g. hot/burn) than if they’re woken after non-REM sleep (e.g. hot/cold). (The brain’s ability to use a wide array of associations during REM sleep explains why our dreams can be so random!)

So, REM sleep helps us identify associations between apparently unrelated memories. Similarly, EMDR has been shown to promote effective memory processing. It appears to ‘free up’ trauma, allowing it to ‘move over’ to regular memory. It helps people put traumatic experiences into a larger context or perspective, appearing more distant, and happening in the past.

In The Body Keeps the Score, Van der Kolk describes a patient who suffered from severe PTSD for thirteen years after a terrible car accident. After just two sessions of EMDR, she transformed from a “helpless panicked victim into a confident, assertive woman.” 


2. Somatic Experiencing (SE)

SE was developed by Peter Levine, author of our top recommended read Waking the Tiger. Here he is telling the story of Nancy, a graduate student who experienced unexplainable panic attacks until his vision of a tiger helped him guide her on the road to recovery! 

SE is a body-oriented approach to overcoming trauma which teaches simple, effective skills that mobilise the body’s self-healing systems. A therapist trained in this model will guide you through processes which aim to release the ‘frozen’ physiological states of overwhelm, whilst tracking sensations, feelings, images and movement in your body. 

3. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy

Sensorimotor psychotherapy was developed by Dr Pat Ogden in the 1970s. Here she is speaking about how the sensorimotor approach helps heal trauma:

Sensorimotor psychotherapy is a form of somatic psychotherapy that is influenced by neuroscience, cognitive and somatic approaches, attachment theory, and the Hakomi Method. Hakomi is a type of therapy that focuses on mindfulness, empathy and loving presence.

4. Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP)

Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP) is a body-mind approach created by Albert Pesso and Diane Boyden, professional dancers who found that when they urged their students to express their emotions through movement, they commonly reported a sense of psychological relief.

It involves learning a number of exercises which help you to become more familiar with the sensorimotor and emotional signals that provide information about the body, often in a group setting.  

5. Therapists trained in The Comprehensive Resource Model (CRM)

CRM is a holistic therapeutic approach for trauma survivors developed by Lisa Schwarz, a psychologist who has specialised in severe dissociative disorders for over 25 years. Here’s Lisa talking about CRM:  

6. Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS)

IFS therapy was developed by Richard Schwartz, a family therapist who noticed that many of his clients spoke about “parts of themselves”. 

IFS therapy is based on the premise that we all have various sub-personalities—labelled “parts”—that can help us understand ourselves better. In addition, each of us has a core Self, the part of us that is confident, compassionate, and undamaged. 

Developing a deeper understanding of our parts and tuning into our sense of Self is how IFS helps us resolve our emotional issues. 

IFS teaches us that all our parts have positive intentions for us, even if this seems counterintuitive. Therefore, there is no need to try to eliminate your parts – you focus on harmonising them. 

The book Self-Therapy: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Wholeness and Healing Your Inner Child Using IFS, A New, Cutting-Edge Psychotherapy by Jay Earley explores IFS in a self-help context.)

7. Tension, Stress and Trauma Release (TRE)

TRE was created by Dr David Berceli. Whilst at a bomb shelter, he noticed that like animals, it’s common for children to shake when they’re scared. When he asked the parents if they ever got an urge to shake, they said they did but they didn’t want their children to see that they were scared. This gave him the idea to incorporate our natural tremor reflex into a treatment for stress reduction. This reflex of shaking or vibrating helps to release muscle tension and calms down our nervous system.  

Trauma survivors have reported feeling retraumatised by TRE by doing too much too soon. It’s important to start slowly and gradually build up. TRE practitioners recommend starting with 1-2 minutes 2-3 times a week. The best option is to find a certified TRE practitioner.

For more information on CPTSD and other issues visit our YouTube Channel

If you need support or would like to connect with like-minded people join our Private and Closed online Facebook Group for Child Abuse Survivors and those with CPTSD. Click here to join


    • Thanks for commenting. I agree with you EMDR therapy is very intense. I have it once a week but find it fantastic at processing traumatic memories. It has helped me enormously. All the best. Erin

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