Phases of Trauma Recovery (and accepting your own journey)

I have found it helpful (at times) to reflect on my experiences from the lens of a therapist.

It has also been a study in accepting my own path. Unfortunately, we cannot plan our way out of the after effects of trauma.

Central to the experience of trauma is a sense of helplessness, isolation and the loss of power and control. Something horrific happened, and the fact that you couldn’t stop it etches a message of powerlessness into your psyche, which is why the guiding principles of trauma recovery are the restoration of safety and empowerment.

I personally started and continue to root my journey in one cornerstone:

“The first goal of trauma recovery should and must be to improve your quality of life on a daily basis”

– Babette Rothschild, 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery, 2010

If you read no further, this one truth is a starting place that removes overwhelm and focuses on a positive next step – your own next step. 

So much of the recovery process can and will occur naturally if we simply continue to get out of bed each morning and take one small step toward a slightly better day than the day before.

Trauma recovery models are simply potential frameworks to consider, and they can provide understanding and maybe even some answers, especially when we struggle to move forward. Perhaps we have neglected an essential phase of recovery that we are now ready to consciously revisit that task.

The original model of trauma recovery is generally attributed to Dr. Pierre Janet, but our modern version of this early work was established by Dr. Judith Herman in her seminal work, Trauma and Recovery, published in 1992.

I’ve broken the first phase into two, based on my own experience as a therapist after trauma:

Phase 1: Safety

Since we are coming from a place of helplessness and often victimization, establishing a sense of safety is essential before we can move forward.

I had friends and family staying with me around the clock for the first week. Then, I installed a security camera that provided live video and notifications on my phone, and this provided the sense of safety I needed to be alone. For a few weeks, I carried a steel baseball bat with me as I checked every room and closet when I came home alone.

Do whatever helps you feel safe and allows you sleep soundly at night, even if it feels over-the-top. The nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety after trauma aren’t going to comply with logic, and you don’t need to either.

Phase 2: Stabilization

Life is often thrown into obvious or subtle disarray following trauma. It’s a natural next step to start to put familiar or new routines and structure into place once we feel safe so that we can get out of crisis mode.

For me, stability meant finding an attorney who would be a committed and positive partner to share the load with, putting a plan in place where I felt some sense of control and self-determination, and getting divorced as quickly as possible.

Once I had a plan, I was able to set my situation aside when I needed to in order to work or be a mom, and this returned me to a sense of normalcy.

Phase 3: Remembrance & Mourning

After the initial trauma, many of us unwillingly ruminate on the events. They come back to us while grocery shopping or the middle of the night. So, it can seem counterintuitive to revisit these painful memories after they have finally stopped terrorizing us.

The greatest potential misstep is to force a particular response to painful memories when we aren’t ready. The prerequisite is distance.

On my one year mark, I purposefully looked back and was surprised to feel a sense of acceptance and gratitude ebbing into the upset. At this point, meditation, journaling and therapy can all be useful resources for reflecting and finding meaning.

Over time, I’ve found myself slowly accepting and integrating my memories into my story, grieving the losses while appreciating the strength, perspective and purpose that were born in the pain, which leads us into the final phase…

Phase 4: Reconnection & Integration

Trauma inevitably leaves a mark. At some point, we shift from surviving to discovering a new sense of self and then charting a new direction forward.

The traumatic experience gets integrated into the bigger picture of our lives – one thread in a giant tapestry, rather than the defining focus.

We hopefully come to a point where that thread makes us stronger, more interesting, and increasingly capable of facing future challenges. We may even be so inspired by our experience that we pursue a new purpose rooted in that resiliency.

The two primary tasks here are to connect within meaningful relationships – the anecdote to the isolation that permeates trauma – and taking your own concrete steps toward an empowered and self-determined life.

Trauma is universal, but your response to it will be entirely unique.

Life is traumatic.

Some of us are more insulated than others, but we will all be victimized, experience tremendous loss, or endure seemingly unbearable circumstances in our lifetimes.

The point of trauma research and theory should always be to help us better understand ourselves as humans, promote social constructs that normalize and accept the highly personal process of responding to trauma, and continue to evolve resources and tools that can prevent the harmful and destructive side effects of unresolved trauma.

Too often, the mental health industry promotes a faulty paradigm of well vs. sick through a language of symptoms, diagnoses, treatment and recovery.

There is rarely recognition of the deep wells of individual and community resources that are more likely to lead to healing, integration of positive meaning, and resiliency; all of which lead to increased human capacity to respond proactively to future adversity.

Instead, the more aptly described “mental illness” industry tends to perpetuate a cycle of helplessness in the face of trauma or loss and a dependence on “professional help” to move forward.

I cannot imagine a more antithetical approach to resiliency.

As you move through your own journey, practice self-compassion first and foremost.

If you feel like therapy is helpful, then go. If medication helps you get through the day, take it. Just remember that you are the source of your strength. You are the one who must live inside your life. Don’t allow anyone to inject shame, guilt, or feelings of failure into your self-identity or recovery journey.

You are your own unique person and your experiences are unique. So, it is only normal to have a unique response, whatever that may entail.

You are not broken. You do not have baggage. You are still you. Whole and human, with all of the pain and joy and difficulty and achievement that comes with being alive. 

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