Can talking therapies heal PTSD?

The role of talking therapy in PTSD treatment

‘Studies have proven that the body and mind record, process and hold onto trauma in several ways. This fact has large implications for PTSD recovery.

When approaching posttraumatic stress disorder recovery it helps to understand both sides of your mind, and also the structure of your brain. You have three layers of brain function:Brains in PTSD

Reptilian – The seat of your instincts and arousal

Limbic – The core of your emotional experience

Cortex – Your thought processing center

All three of these systems get out of sync after trauma, each doing what they feel is important in order for you as an organism to survive. In healing, all three of these layers need to be addressed, accessed and helped to recalibrate. The problem: your reptilian and limbic systems cannot be addressed by thinking or talking. They are physical bodily processes and require less thinking-driven treatment modalities.

The majority of survivors begin PTSD recovery in traditional talk therapy. It’s a natural place to start. As a society we’re very in tune with ‘therapy’ and the idea of talking to a professional when something is wrong emotionally and we don’t know how to fix it, however these ‘talking therapies’ alone cannot cure PTSD..


Your brain is divided into two parts: the conscious and subconscious minds. The conscious mind equals 12% of your brain. (That’s right, the place you spend the most time – all of your waking hours – is the smaller part of your brain!) Your subconscious mind equals 88% of your brain. The conscious mind is responsible for short-term memory, logical and analytical thinking and decision making. The subconscious mind holds your long-term memory, your belief system (which drives 100% of your behavior) and is the seat of your associations and perceptions.

The problem is that your conscious and subconscious minds process information differently. You can think of it as if the conscious mind speaks English and the subconscious mind speaks…. any other language! While your conscious mind uses the language you speak to understand and make sense, the subconscious mind uses stories, metaphors and symbols. The two do not communicate effectively, which is why you can sit in talk therapy for years and not find the freedom you desire – you’re only working in the 12% that understands what you’re discussing.

This is also why you can intellectually tell yourself, “It’s ok, I’m safe now,” and still break out in a cold sweat, get a dry mouth and feel your heart pounding – because your subconscious mind is still operating in survival mode. You can talk for years and not reach freedom because you have yet to address the largest part of your brain and the place where it records trauma in the most deep manner.

As a matter of fact, the sole job of your subconscious mind is to keep you safe. Encoded in millions of neural pathways is all the information gathered through your senses from the experiences in your life. In the midst of all of this, the subconscious mind has a little hiccup: It doesn’t understand the difference between the past, present and future. It only understands and processes in the present moment.

When the subconscious mind records a major, dangerous threat that resulted in your potential physical or emotional harm – and then doesn’t receive the message that the danger has passed; you are safe – it can become stuck in survival mode. In this process the subconscious mind perceives the present moment (even as safe as it may be) as dangerous and becomes over reactive in its quest to keep you safe, unnecessarily responding to all kinds of innocuous stimuli. You may feel ‘crazy’, but it’s just your subconscious mind doing what it thinks is best.


While choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both sides of your brain. Talk therapy and counselling can be a great base to allow you to find words to express what you’re thinking and feeling. When you feel you’ve got a significant amount of talking done and are ready to look for additional support there are many processes to choose.’ NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for post traumatic stress disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

This article comes from Healthy Place.

IMAGES: Brain lobes from Allan Ajifo, feature image from Adam.

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