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On the path of healing from trauma, we learn to bring awareness to how we have impacted and shaped by our lived experienced. Trauma will uniquely influence us in individual ways. Recovery will not look the same for everyone, and it’s important that we are not defined by our past. Psychological trauma can be interpreted through a social context lens, like Judith Herman, M.D. shared in her book Trauma and Recovery. Further, the Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. offers insight into how trauma reshapes our body and brain, interrupting our capacity for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. According to Dr. Herman, professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School, trauma recovery occurs in three stages or phases.
Cultivating Safety and Stabilization (Phase I)
Difficulty regulating emotions, or emotional dysregulation, is a common outcome of trauma. Signs of emotional dysregulation (Bjureberg & Ljótsson, et al., 2016) include:
Lack of Emotional Clarity (confused about you feel)
Difficulties Engaging in Goal-Directed Behavior (difficulty completing tasks)
Impulse Control Difficulties (feeling out of control, especially with behaviors)
Limited Access to Effective Emotion Regulation Strategies (emotions become overwhelming)
Nonacceptance of Emotional Responses (feeling of guilt about how you feel, or feeling irritated with yourself)
Managing and soothing emotions unrelated to the traumatic event(s) may be difficult and disrupt everyday living. Part of cultivating safety comes from within, and learning to manage these emotions. Emotional dysregulation can exacerbate symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD), especially for cumulative trauma (repeated traumatic events). This may event result in complex PTSD.
To cultivate safety through managing emotions, self-soothing practices are beneficial. Check out the coping skills tab, self-compassion tab, and non-traditional paths towards healing. Also, you may wish to explore things like mindfulness, exercise, and spirituality. Whichever route is chosen, that path will be individual to your needs, since the experience of trauma is unique to each person.
Remembrance and Mourning (Phase II)
Getting to a place where we can cultivate meaning, or shift our view as we process trauma can take time. This is a good time to work with a trauma-informed therapist, as ensuring safety and stability are important here. After a traumatic event(s), a person is learning to process it, make meaning, and is cultivating a new worldview. Because post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, and that fight or flight response may be high, learning how to integrate our event(s) with our new worldview in a safe environment may allow for post-traumatic growth (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996).
Reliving the trauma isn’t always necessary; conversely, sharing the narrative could allow for some cathartic release. The main goal in this phase is to grieve the loss of our former identify, allowing for space to navigate this grief and loss, and inspire a newfound meaning of life.
This phase can invite an integrated self, where living authentically also means processing and moving forward after a tragic event(s). Thus, we may uncover repressed or abusive events here, as we mourn the loss of trauma-related experiences, both the good and the bad. This stage is not one to rush, as it can take time and safety is needed, since a loss of safety has usually occurred with the surviving of a traumatic event.
Reconnection and Integration (Phase III)
The reinvention of this stage includes a creation of a new sense of self and a new future. This final task involves redefining oneself in the context of individual self, meaningful relationships, and a hopeful future. Through this process, the trauma no longer is a defining and organizing principle is someone’s life. The trauma becomes integrated into their life story but is not the only story that defines them.
If trauma is processed, grieved, and integrated, it may be possible to experience what is known as Post-traumatic growth (PTG; Tedeschi and Calhoun, 1996). Therapists are cautioned away from minimizing a person’s painful experiences (see APA), as this can cause future damage. Ultimately, trauma-informed care fosters an environment that creates safety, choice, collaboration, trust, and empowerment. From the counseling perspective, PTG may be about listening for a positive reaction or a moment of insight within a survivors’ narrative. Signs of post-traumatic growth includes: (1) new appreciate of life, (2) positive relationships with others, (3) new possibilities in life, (4) personal strength, and (5) a spiritual change.
Indeed, “successful resolution of the effects of trauma is a powerful testament to the resiliency of the human spirit” (see Trauma Recovery). Trauma recovery is learning to live with a newfound resilience, so that the impact (anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use, relational concerns) no longer controls your life. Self-compassion and self-directed kindness are important during this time, as the healing process is a journey, as is the pursuit of an empowered way of life.