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What are the 3 Stages of Trauma Recovery

Updated: Jul 4


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Embrace recovery from traumatic incidents

Are you struggling with the devastating effects of trauma? If you've been on a journey through darkness and are ready to embark on the path to healing, trauma therapy may be crucial to reclaiming your life. Recovering from a traumatic incident can be difficult, but very rewarding work. In this article, I will unveil the stages of trauma therapy, which can offer you solace and recovery.


Who originated the three stages of recovery?

According to the work of Dr. Judith Herman, trauma recovery is thought to occur in three main stages: safety and stabilization, remembrance and mourning (or trauma processing), and reconnection and integration. Dr. Pierre Janet originated the stages, but Dr. Herman developed and popularized the stages later.

In addition to these stages, it is also possible to grow from tragedies in our lives and from losses we experience. Post-traumatic growth emphasizes how you can transcend traumatic experiences and become stronger in profound, unexpected ways. The field of positive psychology also teaches us that when you focus on our strengths and resources, you feel less damaged, broken, and helpless.


When it first happens, a traumatic incident can shake the core of your life. Depending on the magnitude of the trauma, it disorients your sense of safety and sense of self. Nothing seems the same after that event. It’s hard to imagine getting back to the life and the person you were before. This can lead to feeling emotionally unstable and helpless. You might become irritable, anxious, hypervigilant, confused, and feel out of control.


Let’s look at the first of the stages of trauma recovery...

The first stage of trauma recovery is stabilization and safety, which involves helping a person regulate their feeling states, or affect. The therapist might encourage the person to express the trauma nonverbally through their bodies, movement, or art.


One way that therapy can help is to build resources that the client can use to feel calm, positive, and more empowered. For example, I often start the process of EMDR therapy by helping my client identify in their mind a safe person and a safe place they can imagine being. This person could be a benevolent force in their life, but it is important that they have not done anything to hurt, deceive, or exploit the client.


A safe place can be something as simple as your bedroom, a favorite vacation spot, or a place in nature like the beach or the redwoods. Other resources that can be used include times when you felt proud of yourself, or overcame adversity. If you want a guided imagery exercise that helps you develop a sense of safety, click here.


The second stage of trauma recovery

Once a person has established some stability and learned skills to manage the physical and emotional after effects of the trauma, the next stage involves exploring the traumatic incident and reintegrating it into the mind’s neural networks. This stage is referred to as trauma processing or remembrance and mourning. Dr. Janina Fisher describes the need to “metabolize” the memory of the trauma, and suggests EMDR therapy as one way to do that.


Traumatic memories are often stored in a fragmented way that makes it hard to remember the trauma in a normal, calm fashion. This is why trauma processing helps reconsolidate the memory and make it part of your life story. Processing the memory and reconsolidation make it less upsetting to recall and helps you see it through the eyes of your current self, not the younger self that originally experienced the trauma.


Dr. Arielle Schwartz describes beautifully how mind-body therapies like EMDR therapy and somatic experiencing help a client reconsolidate the memories adaptively. Somatic approaches can also release the physical energy that was trapped in a person’s body when they went through the trauma.


Sometimes, your trauma happened during birth or before you had language to express yourself. Other times, there are no words that you can put to the physical experience, which makes it very hard to work with that therapeutically. Bessel van der Kolk talks about "speechless terror" that hijacks your brain's ability to put words to the experience while the trauma is happening. Being able to incrementally feel the body and its response to the trauma can be quite healing and a necessary step in working through the incident.


One somatic method to deal with trauma is pendulation. This technique encourages you to switch back and forth between focusing on the physical and emotional reaction to the trauma, and then paying attention to a positive or calming resource. You do this back and forth until you can tolerate the reaction better. This is just one of many ways to work with the remembrance and mourning stage of trauma recovery.


Grief is part of trauma recovery

Another aspect of this stage is to recognize what was lost with the traumatic event. It seems that grief often accompanies trauma; sometimes it can be difficult to accept the loss. You don’t have to just grieve for a person who died or who left a relationship; you might also grieve your sense of innocence or the quality of your relationship to others or to yourself. One client told me, "I miss the relationship I could have had with my abusive father."


Sometimes, having a compassionate person to bear witness to what you went through is much more validating and healing that being told that you’re overreacting, or that you just need to be patient. It also doesn't help you to hear, “everything happens for a reason.” While that may be true, if you’re not ready to hear it, it seems trite and invalidating. It also minimizes the grief that you feel.


The final stage of trauma recovery

The last stage of trauma recovery involves integrating the incident into your life story and developing a new sense of self. Trauma survivors sometimes describe themselves as disconnected from themselves and others, which is a way to survive the trauma. But eventually, we have to come home to ourselves and our interconnectedness with others. Reconnecting with others is important because people can become very distrustful and withdrawn when they experience traumas.


Sometimes, this stage can lead to finding meaning and a new sense of purpose. People have experienced trauma and loss throughout the ages, and while it devastates some people, others develop resilience for other traumatic or stressful situations.


For others, the traumatic incident can put things in perspective, and help people realize that they were stronger than they thought. They can also become more compassionate to others, and accept themselves more easily than before.


One example of this is Candace Lightner, who started Mothers against Drunk Driving, or MADD. She turned the tragedy of losing her 13-year-old daughter to a drunk driver into a national organization dedicated to preventing further tragedy. A person can also do something simpler, such as make a donation to a cause that relates to the trauma, or perform a therapeutic ritual. Some ways to do this are to create artwork, fiction, or some other symbolic representation that allows them to transition from their life with the trauma to a new life.


Helping you connect to your higher power can also assist you in moving forward with your life, if you believe in a higher power. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, there is a need in all of us to make meaning of suffering. As Bill O’Hanlon says, “trauma has such a devastating effect because it shatters meaning." As you can see, there are many ways to help you regain your sense of strength and even find the value of your trauma, in this recovery stage.


This is just a brief description of the stages of trauma recovery to help you understand what you can expect from trauma therapy. Once you've become emotionally stable and learned coping skills, you can remember and mourn the tragic event and process the trauma.


This metabolizes it into your neural networks so you can remember the event calmly and less emotionally. After that, you can begin reconnecting to other people, yourself, and if you choose, your higher power. All of this allows you to see yourself in a new light, as strong, loveable, and capable.


If you are struggling with trauma and seeking trauma recovery in the state of California, I can help. Please call 661-233-6771 for more information and to schedule a confidential consultation with me.


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