Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) based Trauma Therapy

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) based Trauma Therapy

What is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) based Trauma Therapy?

CBT based trauma therapy is a well established, evidence-based treatment approach specifically designed to address the painful thoughts, feelings, associations, and behaviours linked to traumatic events. It is designed to be time limited and can be used for adverse life events, cPTSD and PTSD. Most trauma therapies, including Imagery Rescripting (ImRS), Eye Movement Desenstisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), and Exposure Therapy are founded based on CBT principals.

A key feature of CBT based trauma therapy is exploring the way adverse life events have shaped the clients view of:

  1. Themselves
  2. Others
  3. The world

Core beliefs about oneself, others, and the world, are then evaluated for their current effectiveness, with the aim of retaining healthy beleifs and discarding unhealthy or dysfunctional beliefs in favour of more adaptive ones. 

For example, someone who grows up in a highly competitive or hostile environment may develop the world view “it’s a dog eat dog world” (i.e. I have to look out for myself and I can’t trust others). While this belief might be a useful coping strategy in the situation it originated in, over time it will likely prove to be extremely ineffective or inaccurate when applied to all situations in adulthood.

Examples of common core beliefs about self following an adverse life event include:

I am unworthy
I am unsafe
I deserve bad things
I am a burden

Examples of common core beliefs about others following an adverse life event include:

People can’t be trusted
People are manipulative
Others will try to hurt me if given the chance

Examples of common core beliefs about the world following an adverse life event include:

The world is a cruel and horrible place
No where is safe

CBT Based Trauma Therapy Phases

As with almost all trauma therapies, there is an initial preparation phase of stabilisation and skill building. In this phase, the therapist works with the client to establish a good therapeutic relationship, develop safety plans, and support the client to develop coping skills such as relaxation techniques, emotion regulation strategies, safe place imagery etc. 

The active phase in CBT based trauma therapy involves exploring painful memories (either by using a timeline or by processing recent triggers) with an emphasis on cognitive restructuring.

Cognitive restructuring involves identifying unhelpful and ineffective patterns in thinking, and developing more effective, healthy, and well-balanced beliefs, and then changing behaviours accordingly. More effective can mean: 

  • Less triggering
  • Less emotionally painful
  • Seeing things more clearly or accurately
  • Enable a more skilled response

Cognitive restructuring aims to build on the clients ability to recognise automatic thoughts and feelings as soon as they come up, and to evaluate their accuracy and helpfulness.

When people first learn about cognitive restructuring, it can easily be mistaken for focusing on the positive. This is an unfortunate oversimplification that can lead to people feeling misunderstood, patronised, and invalidated. It can also be extremely harmful, for example by leading people to stay in an unhealthy or dangerous relationship with unfounded the hope that the other person will change.

Cognitive restructuring instead aims to develop a more sophisticated viewpoint that considers both positive and negative perspectives and is ultimately more:

  • Realistic
  • Healthy
  • Balanced
  • Flexible
  • Helpful
  • Effective

For example, rather than replacing the belief: 

I can’t trust others


I can trust others 

Cognitive restructuring will instead aim to work towards a more balanced perspective such as:

I can trust some people. Some people in my life have proved to be unhelpful for me, while others have been helpful

CBT may then involve exploring what makes someone trustworthy or untrustworthy, what are the warning signs of trustworthiness/untrustworthiness, how to protect oneself without shutting oneself off completely etc.

CBT Based Trauma Therapy Exercises

Three common CBT based trauma therapy tools are:

  • Using an Automatic Thought Record (ATR). The is the most popular CBT tool and involves writing down intrusive PTSD related thoughts as they come up and implementing cognitive restructuring techniques, either in real time or after the fact
  • Art therapy exercises can help people understand themselves, make sense of things, gain a new perspective in a less cognitive and more creative away 
  • The Cognitive Triangle (pictured below) demonstrates the way our thoughts, behaviours, and emotions are all interconnected. It demonstrates the importance of shifting thoughts and behaviours as a way to change emotions

Other CBT Based Trauma Therapies

Exposure Therapy

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) - This is a short-term (12 session) CBT based phychotherapy for trauma that focuses on considering how the event changed the individual and their ways of thinking. Each thought is weighed against the evidence to see if the thought is currently accurate and adaptive. 

Stress Innoculation Training (SIT) - This is a psychotherapy that can be used both as an adjunct or stand alone therapy for PTSD. Involves identifying your triggers and developing a range of coping skills to reduce stress and anxiety. Examples of coping skills include deep breathing, helpful self-talk, progress muscle relaxation (PMR), communication skills, role playing etc.

Self-guided SIT skills can be downloaded for free at

Limitations of CBT Based Trauma Therapies 

While CBT is a leading treatment for adverse life events and PTSD, it does not work for everyone. Some people find the focus on thoughts and thoughts diaries ineffective in shifting their mood states. In these cases, the person may benefit from a different form of trauma therapy (such as Imagery Rescripting or Compassion Focused Therapy) or a therapy that focuses on shifting painful emotions in other less cognitive ways, such as using the emotion regulation skills in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy or the somatic strategies in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.

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