TRAUMA RECOVERY STAGES

Dr Judith Herman wrote “Trauma and Recovery” in 1992 and it is one of the foundational books when talking about complex trauma and recovery. In this book, which can be purchased here, goes into three stages of trauma treatment. While the stages will vary significantly based on the individual, they provide a realistic and beneficial guide for those attempting to permanently overcome the lasting, devastating effects of past traumatic experience.

Stage One: Safety, Stabilization, & Education

The first, and perhaps most important stage of trauma recovery is about establishing safety.  People affected by trauma tend to feel unsafe in their bodies and in their relationships with others. This stage might last weeks, months or even years, depending on the level of trauma. Everyone’s journey and timeline is different.

This stage is focused on skills development to aid you to practice self-soothing and care skills to increase emotional and behavioral stabilization. This helps you learn ways to manage urges to abuse substances, alcohol and/or self-harm.

Education helps normalize what you’re experiencing. What’s happening in your nervous system and brain are responding exactly the way they were designed to respond after having survived repeated traumatic experiences.

Safety is not only about feeling safe with your therapist, but also your life outside the therapy room. This is very important for healing to happen. In cases where you remain in an unsafe environment, plans to establish personal and practical safety remain the focus prior to delving into trauma memory processing work. The overriding goal is to make a gradual shift from danger that is unpredictable to a situation where you can rely on safety both in your environment and within yourself.

 

Stage Two: Processing, Remembering and Mourning

This stage of recovery is processing the trauma; putting words and emotions to it and making meaning of it. This process is usually undertaken with a counselor or therapist. It might not be necessary or required to spend a lot of time in this phase. It is however necessary to be continuing to attend to safety and stability during this phase. Processing does not begin until you are able to self-soothe and self-regulate any overwhelming emotions. Beginning processing too early can be unhelpful and re-traumatizing. This is very important to remember.

The objective is to create a space in which you can safely work through traumatic events and begin to make sense of the devastating experiences that have shaped your life. Because of the nature of traumatic memories, this process is rarely linear. A good therapeutic relationship should provide you with a compassionate companion who will "bear witness" to your experiences, and help you to find the strength to heal. Using exercises that are designed for trauma memory processing. 

The main Goals of stage Two involves:

  • Recognizing that the abuse is not who you are, but rather what happened to you.

  • Deconstructing and letting go of shame, guilt and disgust that is often passed on from the perpetrator to you. Knowing who you are (a unique being) not what the perpetrator told you who you were.

  • Mourning the loss of a happy childhood/relationship that you didn’t get.

  • Choosing and working with your therapist to get help with distressing memories that may be affecting your quality of life, i.e, sleep disturbances, night terrors, flashbacks, dissociation, hyper vigilance, anxiety & depression.

Stage 3: Reconnection & Integration

In this third stage of recovery, the person affected by trauma recognizes the impact of the trauma but are now ready to take concrete steps towards empowerment and self determined living.

In this phase there is creation of a new sense of self and a new future. This final task involves redefining oneself in the context of meaningful relationships. Through this process, the trauma no longer is a defining and organizing principle in someone’s life. The trauma becomes integrated into their life story but is not the only story that defines them.

Remember that recovery is not linear. Your journey will probably not follow a straight line, but instead might be circular, moving in and out of stages until you feel you are ready.

 

Recovery is an individual process and will look different for everyone. There is an intense desire to feel well quickly and individuals can feel that the process is taking too long or they are not doing it “right”. Recovery is not defined by complete absence of thoughts or feelings about the traumatic experience but being able to live with it in a way that it isn’t in control of your life. It is important to gentle, patient and compassionate with yourself as you move through this healing process.