The Stages of Trauma and Recovery

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“I never thought this would happen to me.” 

“I always thought things like this only happened on TV.”   

Why me?”

If you’ve experienced a traumatic event, you might find yourself saying similar things.

The stages of trauma look different for everyone, but understanding the similarities can help you heal.

What is Trauma?

Trauma occurs when an abnormal event overwhelms one’s ability to cope. It shocks, confuses, and can leave you in a fog. It can bring on feelings of intense anxiety, helplessness, and may even cause you to question your sense of reality.

The trauma response can be difficult to understand. It can also alter our daily lives which can lead us to feel disconnected from ourselves and others.

A traumatic event includes witnessing or being in an accident, experiencing sexual assault, or abuse. It can also result from experiencing combat and natural disasters. But, a traumatic event doesn’t need to fall within these categories to bring on a trauma response. For example, medical trauma and religious trauma are also unique forms of trauma that include wide range of personal experiences. Like with any trauma, each person’s personal experience may look and feel quite different.

In some individuals, untreated or unaddressed trauma can lead to mental health concerns including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD).

Ready to understand what you’re experiencing? Read on to understand the stages of trauma.

Trauma doesn’t discriminate and is a human experience.

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The Stages of Trauma and Healing

We hear a lot about trauma these days. The news is full of traumatic experiences.

Trauma doesn’t discriminate and is a human experience. After you experience trauma it’s not uncommon to feel shame, guilt, or negative effects to your self-esteem.

But, do we actually understand the effects of trauma?

By understanding the stages of trauma, you’ll know what to expect and may feel more in control of what you’re experiencing. Explore the following stages to gain insight and awareness on your recovery path towards healing.

stages of trauma
By knowing the stages of trauma, you can help yourself heal and feel more in control of what you’re experiencing.

1. Stabilization and Safety

Following the traumatic event, you may find yourself withdrawing from others. This withdrawal process is normal and is a survival mechanism. During this time, you may feel anger, guilt, fear, and denial.

Other emotions may also surface unique to the event and based on who you are as an individual. It’s normal to feel unsafe in your own body, relationships, and in the world. This phase can last for weeks, months, or even years. Especially if the trauma is not processed, understood, and supported during therapy.

A therapist will begin to help you understand your emotions during the stabilization and safety stages. They will work with you to identify areas of your life where safety and stabilization need to be addressed.

To recover, you will learn how to first regulate difficult emotions by learning new coping skills. Therapists will understand if the trauma is too overwhelming for you to discuss.

 

In this case, the therapist may teach you how to use mindfulness, yoga, and deep breathing to soothe yourself. Cultivating new routines should also be a part of this recovery stage.

The key is to find space where you can review the trauma but not relive it.

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2. Mourning and Remembrance

During this stage, you’ll begin to create your own answers to the question, “What does this all mean?”

This stage in the recovery process is all about processing and making meaning of the trauma. The key is to find space where you can review the trauma but not relive it. You can go through this phase at your own pace. If you’re working with a therapist, then they will continue to make safety and stabilization a priority.

As you become ready, you can grieve the losses resulting from the traumatic event. Talk about your emotions. Allow yourself to release painful feelings and thoughts. Be gentle with yourself during this time. Be compassionate and patient. There’s no “right” timeline you should be following.

EMDR Therapy may also be an effective tool used during this time. EMDR is a therapeutic technique that helps you to review the traumatic event while focusing on a bilateral external stimulus. The stimulus could be physical, visual, or auditory. For example this may look like tapping, buzzing, or eye movements.

A trained EMDR therapist can help you better understand your emotions during the stabilization and safety stages. They will work with you to identify areas of your life where safety and stabilization need to be addressed.

group of women sitting in front of NYC skyline
A trained therapist can help you learn how to process difficult emotions.

3. Integration and Reconnection

After a traumatic event, your sense of self may change. The traumatic event may seem to define you, simply because the negative impact is so overwhelming. The final stage of trauma recovery helps to overcome these effects so you can lead a fulfilling and joyful life.

During this phase, you‘ll work on cultivating a new sense of self. You’ll also learn how to build upon healthy experiences and plan for the future. Reconnecting with others and redefining meaningful relationships in your life is an integral part of the process.

By now, the trauma itself becomes integrated as a part of your history. It no longer defines you and instead becomes one chapter in your life story. You recognize the impact of the event and what it means, and now you’re ready to take action. This stage is about making meaning out of the traumatic event.

For example, you may decide to work with or help people who have experienced similar trauma. You might consider writing a book or speaking publicly about your experience. Some examples of this in action are foundations or organizations, surrounding specific causes (such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Making meaning from the trauma can also be experienced on a smaller scale that’s equally as impactful. For example, you may decide to live a healthier lifestyle or change careers. Through these efforts, you empower yourself and others. You’ll create new, healthy beliefs about yourself that allow you to step forward into your new sense of reality. A reality that is created by you and that you’re determined to achieve.

Taking meaning from the trauma can also be experienced on a smaller scale that’s equally as impactful. For example, you may decide to live a healthier lifestyle, change careers, or end a relationship that no longer serves you.

 

group of women sitting in front of NYC skyline
Making meaning from the trauma can also be experienced on a smaller scale that’s equally as impactful. For example, you may decide to live a healthier lifestyle or change careers. 

You’re Not Alone:  Moving Through The Stages of Trauma

The stages of trauma are experienced differently by each individual. Just like grief, they can be experienced more than once. Always remind yourself that you’re never alone even if your responses and coping mechanisms differ from others.

For extra support in moving through the stages of trauma, it’s often helpful to connect with an experienced therapist. A therapist can help you to process, integrate, and cope with the trauma in a healthy and productive way. They can help you understand yourself better and make sense of the way you’re feeling.

We may never truly understand why bad things happen, but we can learn how to cope more effectively. We can learn how to become more resilient and more loving towards ourselves and others as well. For more resources and tips to promote healing from trauma, browse our specialty pages by concern. 

Your Turn: How did you heal or create meaning out of your experience that led you to where you are today? Share what helped in the comments below.

Kristin Anderson

Kristin Anderson is a Licensed Psychotherapist at Clarity Therapy. Kristin helps clients learn how to heal from the past wounds of trauma and free themselves of depression, anxiety, and resentment so that they can live more fulfilling and prosperous lives.

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