Internal Family Systems – A new approach to treating PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is characterized by symptoms such as intrusive memories, flashbacks, severe anxiety, and emotional numbness. While traditional treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have shown effectiveness, there is an emerging interest in the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz which provides a compassionate and holistic framework for understanding and treating PTSD.

IFS recognizes that our psyches are made up of different parts, sometimes called subpersonalities. You can think of them as little people inside us. Each part has its own perspective, feelings, memories, goals, and motivations. For example, one part of you might be trying to lose weight, and another part might want to eat whatever it wants. These parts often develop as coping mechanisms in response to life experiences, especially traumatic events.

IFS therapy also accentuates the presence of the “Self,” a core state of calmness, curiosity, and compassion. The self is capable of bringing healing to our wounded and traumatized parts. This notion is crucial for individuals with PTSD, as trauma often disrupts the connection with the Self, leading to internal conflict and distress.

One of the first steps in IFS therapy is to identify the different parts within an individual’s mind. For someone with PTSD, these parts can be categorized into:

Exiles: Parts that are buried deep within us, these parts hold feelings and memories that are very difficult for us to be in touch with.

Managers: These are protective parts that are responsible for our day-to-day safety Managers are the parts of you that want to control everything. They in particular protect exiled parts from enduring further trauma.

Firefighters: These show up as a second line of defense, working to protect us from pain that has broken through the managers’ defenses. The goal of these parts is to put out the emotional fire as quickly as possible by providing some relief or comfort in the moment.

In an individual with PTSD, these parts may include those that hold traumatic memories, those that attempt to protect the individual from experiencing further harm (protectors), and those that manage daily functioning (managers). The therapist can assist the client in identifying and understanding the roles and interactions of these parts. This newfound awareness enables clients to recognize how their parts affect their thoughts and behaviors, laying the groundwork for deeper healing.

IFS therapy also empowers individuals to connect with their Self. Through guided exercises and therapeutic dialogue, clients learn to access the Self and use it to lead their parts toward understanding and healing.

In IFS, the therapist helps the individual heal the parts that hold traumatic memories. This involves listening to these parts, validating their experiences, and helping them release their burdens. 

After addressing the traumatic parts, the focus shifts to restoring balance among all parts. This step is vital for individuals with PTSD, as it ensures that the protective and managerial parts no longer need to overwork to shield the individual from pain. Instead, these parts can adopt healthier roles that support overall well-being.

The final phase of IFS therapy involves integrating the healed parts into an integrated sense of self. This integration allows individuals to move forward with a more interconnected and resilient identity, free from the grip of past trauma. They can engage in life with greater confidence and emotional stability.

IFS therapy offers a transformative approach to healing PTSD by addressing the intricate inner workings of the mind. By recognizing and healing the various parts within us and nurturing the Self, individuals can achieve profound and lasting recovery. 


Gauri Mathur is a Registered Psychotherapist with College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. One of Gauri’s areas of interest includes Internal Family Systems and PTSD. Gauri uses evidence-based modalities and an integrative approach in order to help her clients receive treatment that is personalized to their unique needs.

DISCLAIMER: This blog is meant for psychoeducational purposes only. Intended solely to provide you with information and is not meant to take the place of therapy.

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