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How do psychologists treat trauma?

Dear Psychologist,

I am interested in going to graduate school to become a psychologist. I might want to work with people who have been in a war or had other trauma. What do I need to study? How do psychologists treat trauma? Thanks, Sean.

Dear Sean,

It sounds as though you might want to consider getting a doctorate in psychology and becoming a clinical psychologist. While you could get a master's degree in psychology, getting a doctorate will enable you to become licensed in your state as a psychologist and will give you a fuller training in your area of interest.

Requirements for treating trauma

Psychologists do indeed treat trauma. In fact, treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is one area in which psychology is always making new advances. To be competent at treating trauma, not only will you need the general courses that all psychologists get, such as Abnormal Psychology and Developmental Psychology, but you should also take classes that are specifically about trauma. In addition, you should look for an internship in which you get supervised experience in this area, and I recommend a post-doctoral training as well.

In fact, you will probably find that you continue to take courses in this area even after you graduate. All licensed psychologists must take continuing education courses and there are some excellent ones in treatment of trauma.

Treatment of trauma

The word trauma covers a wide variety of situations but basically refers to an experience that anyone would find difficult. Serving in a war certainly exposes one to trauma and most veterans have some form of PTSD with which they struggle. Other sources of acute trauma could be earthquakes, fires, shootings and violent crime.

There are many kinds of treatments for trauma ranging from crisis intervention techniques and talk therapy to medication and forms of therapy such as hypnosis, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and some energy techniques. Some of these treatments have the endorsement of the American Psychological Association while others have not yet been officially approved.

Another kind of trauma is the ongoing one that a child might experience in an unsafe household. Children who are physically, emotionally or sexually abused are exposed to chronic trauma. Sometimes child therapists treat the child in this situation but more often an adult with this background comes into therapy later in life after having symptoms such as relationship troubles, flashbacks, body problems, depression and more.

To treat this kind of childhood trauma, a psychologist must be skilled on many levels. She will need to help her clients develop coping and self-care skills they never got, deal with overwhelming emotions, build safe relationships and manage physical symptoms. She will need to be available in case the client feels fragile during this process.

This kind of work requires extensive training, but it can be quite rewarding to do.

Next Steps

I suggest that you start your general training in psychology. If you have a private practice later on or work in a clinic, you will surely see patients with traumas. However, if you want to make this area a specialty, then begin to focus on it as you progress through your doctoral program. There will be many opportunities for you to develop competence and expertise. Good luck.

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