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Jennie Lannette MSW, LCSW

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

5 Unique Ways to Ease PTSD

Here are some alternative ways to meet trauma treatment goals.

Pete Johnson/Pexels
Watsu and sensory-deprivation floating are two tools to help with relaxation and anxiety.
Source: Pete Johnson/Pexels

Dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is serious business. That doesn’t mean you can’t have moments of fun and relief along the way. Sometimes trying new things is part of the therapy.

To consider the best alternative treatments or enjoyable supplemental approaches, it helps to understand why and how trauma therapy works. Studies show that within the most effective PTSD therapies there are common ingredients (Gentry, Baranowsky, & Rhoton, 2017). I’ve seen this proven repeatedly in active practice with clients as well. These ingredients are delivered in different ways with each therapy, but get the same overall outcomes.

The PTSD-healing ingredients include:

  • Relaxing the anxiety/stress response (this might be through breathing, grounding, meditation, yoga, exercise, or many other methods)
  • Cognitive restructuring (reconsidering the self-blaming thoughts and beliefs that are keeping us stuck in healing or misunderstanding what happened to us)
  • A positive therapeutic relationship (feeling comfortable and safe with your therapist)
  • Some type of exposure to the thoughts, memories, and/or feelings relating to the trauma that caused the PTSD (this may be through talking, writing, or visualizing what happened, so that you can deal with memories, thoughts and feelings rather than avoiding them); some therapies also incorporate facing the situations and places that we know are safe, but we are avoiding because of anxiety or because it reminds us of the trauma, or just feels out of control

With these ingredients in mind, here are compatible ways you can try to ease symptoms during the healing process. While the methods below alone aren’t proven to help heal PTSD, they are consistent with goals you might set in therapy. As always, only try things that are most appropriate for you and your situation, and seek experienced help if you are continuing to struggle with PTSD or other mental health issues.

1. Watsu/Aquatic Massage

Watsu, similar to other types of aquatic bodywork, is a type of deeply relaxing massage in the water. Advocates believe Watsu and other aquatic work lowers the body’s stress response, and helps you relax, even providing case studies of it directly helping with trauma symptoms (Watsu, 2019). This method could benefit from more in-depth research, and if it interests you, I would suggest it in conjunction with working with a qualified mental health therapist. If you are unsure about massage in the water, safety is addressed carefully by the practitioner, and your head never goes under water. I had a Watsu massage many years ago at a resort in Hawaii, and the experience was so relaxing and memorable that I have continued to seek it out around the world since.

2. Float

Have you heard of the sensory deprivation process of floating? This is another water intervention, but it’s quite different than aquatic bodywork, and you’ll enter the water entirely alone. Floats may help with our identified goal of relaxing the stress response, but may also aid by giving us less distraction and time to think and process past events (the cognitive restructuring and exposure goals). Floats are delivered in sensory-deprivation tanks or pods, and are saturated with epsom salt (think of what you might soak your feet in at home, only times a lot more salt), so the water forces your whole body to float.

I think of floating as extreme mindfulness, so if you already have some experience in meditation, this may be very appropriate for you. Some early studies are finding promising mental health results for floating, relating to depression, anxiety and stress management (Bood, Sundequist, Kjellgren, Norlander, Nordstrom, 2006; Feinstein et al., 2018). To get the most out of your first float, consider meditating for a while just before your appointment—this may help you get into a deeper mindfulness state more quickly and get the most out of your experience.

3. Interplay

Interplay is a fun, expressive, body-mindfulness program that invites adults to relax, move and play. There is also a chance for story-telling and connection, tying it into nearly all of our PTSD treatment goals. In ongoing surveys of its participants, Interplayers reported feeling more connected, creative, and peaceful, even after just one session (Interplay, 2019). I believe there is even more potential for directly addressing anxiety and trauma in this innovative, body-wisdom program. For an introduction, check out the Interplay website. Like our other interventions, we could use more research on this, but anecdotal evidence from regular Interplayers abounds.

4. SARK

Have you heard of the author SARK? She has 15+ best-selling books, and if you haven’t read her books you may have seen or even have one of her famous posters, liked the one titled How to Really Love a Child. SARK incorporates childlike fun and playfulness into her healing books, which sneakily include a good amount of cognitive restructuring (including noticing feelings, expressing them through writing, and retelling your stories in a self-affirming way).

5. Express Yourself

For some, visual or other types of artistic expression help with all of our goals in PTSD treatment. I use a sand tray in my office to supplement my other therapies. Often my clients start with creating their “safe place” in the sand tray, using miniature characters and symbols. There’s a more in-depth version of this therapy called Sandplay, based on Jungian principles. Again, this therapy alone is not considered a frontline treatment for trauma or PTSD, but for the right client it might be a great supplemental or alternative approach. You can also try more casual expressive events like an expressive arts, drama or other artistic class in your community. This would tie into expressing emotions, processing, and exposure elements of trauma treatment.

These are just a few of the ways we might supplement PTSD treatment and help lower symptoms. What unique ways have you found helpful?

References

Bood, S. Å., Sundequist, U., Kjellgren, A., Norlander, T., Nordström, L., Nordenström, K., & Nordström, G. (2006). Eliciting the relaxation response with the help of flotation-rest (restricted environmental stimulation technique) in patients with stress-related ailments. International Journal of Stress Management, 13(2), 154-175.

Eric Gentry, J & B. Baranowsky, Anna & Rhoton, Robert. (2017). Trauma Competency: An Active Ingredients Approach to Treating Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Counseling & Development. 95. 279-287. 10.1002/jcad.12142.

Even once will do it: Evaluating Interplay. Downloaded Feb. 5, 2019 at http://www.interplay.org/features/evaluation-report/EvaluationReport.htm

Feinstein, J. S., Khalsa, S. S., Yeh, H. W., Wohlrab, C., Simmons, W. K., Stein, M. B., & Paulus, M. P. (2018). Examining the short-term anxiolytic and antidepressant effect of Floatation-REST. PloS one, 13(2), e0190292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190292

Watsu, retrieved Feb. 2019 at watsu.com

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About the Author

Jennie Lannette, MSW, LCSW, provides trauma, anxiety and PTSD counseling in Columbia, Mo., at her private practice, The Counseling Palette.