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Finding and Choosing a Trauma Therapist

Jamie Marich, Ph.D., LPCC-S, LICDC-CS, RMT, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

As we have emphasized throughout, if trauma seems like it might be a factor in your healing journey, finding a trauma-informed therapist is key. This is often easier said than done. However, we can offer a few tips:

One way to get started is to contact a professional organization that offers trauma certifications for treatment professionals. They may not maintain updated registries but can at least help to point you in the right direction.

therapy sessionKeep in mind, certifications and licenses are not the same. Healthcare licenses are highly regulated by state and federal agencies. In contrast, specialist certifications are not. Certifications are often developed and maintained by professional organizations. With the exception of highly specialized treatments such as EMDR these additional certifications do not necessarily indicate better quality care. Many well-trained, highly-skilled, licensed trauma specialists do not maintain certifications in addition to their licenses. These much sought-after clinicians already have full caseloads, and additional certifications are costly. Each state has different licensing requirements for healthcare professionals. Check with your states health and human services departments to learn more about licensing requirements.

Another helpful strategy is to use an Internet search engine and type in the name of your location, plus the words "trauma" and/or "PTSD." Professionals who feel competent to work in the area of trauma will generally list this on their websites. Doing homework in this way is generally well-advised. Go ahead and email them or call them with questions. Someone committed to client-centered, trauma-informed care will generally get back to you and be responsive to your inquiry and concerns. Even if they have a full caseload, they may be able to give you the names of other local clinicians that they respect.

Keep in mind, trauma recovery looks different for each survivor. It is largely dependent upon each person's recovery goals. The healing process is also influenced by the type and amount of resources available to a person for recovery purposes. Resources do not necessarily need to be material things. Resources include time, money, family and peer support, access to therapy, availability of adjunct services (e.g., yoga), enjoyable and rewarding leisure activities (e.g., hobbies, community service work), and personal resources such as motivation and spirituality.

Resources can also refer to basic coping skills. In cases where there was childhood trauma or other childhood stressors (e.g., divorce), it is unlikely these skills were ever acquired. These skills include self-soothing techniques like deep breathing; muscle relaxation work; and, guided imagery. These and other healing techniques can be learned with a therapist; from another wellness professional (e.g., a yoga teacher, minister); or from a self-help book/recording. You are welcome to visit my website for some complimentary, trauma-informed coping skills videos that you can use even if you are not in formal professional care.

Another healing resource is the therapeutic relationship itself. This relationship naturally forms between therapy participants and their therapists (or other healing arts professionals). Indeed, this relational structure of therapy may be the foundational resource for your healing. As such, it important for you to consider your options. Don't be afraid to do your homework. In addition to investigating the credentials and other qualifications of providers, visit several websites and try to get a feel for who they are and how they work. After you've narrowed the field, a face-to-face visit should be scheduled.

You should not expect that you must decide if a provider is the right fit for you in just one session. So, unless you feel extremely unsafe during or after that first visit, it's generally advised to give any therapeutic relationship (with a counselor, social worker, psychologist, or even a medical manager like a psychiatrist) at least three sessions before making a decision. Because of geographical distance and other limiting factors (e.g., access to health insurance) some folks will have more choices than others.

In order to optimize your healing journey, it is important for you to enjoy a positive relationship with your treatment professional. You should feel safe and respected. This does not mean you will always like your therapist. There are times when the therapist may ask you to do things that are uncomfortable and challenging, and there are times when they must reveal unpleasant truths to you. Nonetheless, you should always feel liked and respected by them! Wherever possible, look for providers who are willing to honor your need for safety and possess a high degree of flexibility. Rigid professionals who tell you that there is only one way to heal trauma may be more harmful than they are helpful in your quest for recovery.

So what makes a good helping professional? When it comes to working with trauma, there are many articles that list criteria. Perhaps the best list out there is one that a survivor of complex dissociation and trauma herself gave us. Anna received services from a variety of treatment professionals over the years. Anna's therapy experiences have been largely ineffective. Nonetheless, she has had enough contact with healing arts professionals to have developed a unique and valuable perspective. Anna shares the criteria she has found to be important. Her list might serve as a helpful guide in your quest for finding the right helper(s):

  • A trauma-informed professional knows and understand your diagnosis.
  • A trauma-informed professional gets to know you, and meets you wherever you are in your recovery journey. In other words, they find out where you are now, where you've been, and where do you want to go from here (i.e., your recovery goals)?
  • A trauma-informed professional believes in TEAMWORK. Both the professional and the client do work, lots of it.
  • A trauma-informed professional demonstrates compassion and empathy-NOT PITY, ever.
  • A trauma-informed professional believes in a sense of connectedness.
  • A trauma-informed professional should never impose their own morals and beliefs (e.g., religion). Instead, they are guided by their standards of ethics, coupled with a belief in the worth and value of every person.