What Are The Three Stages Of Trauma Recovery?
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Recovering from a traumatic incident can be difficult, but very rewarding work. According to the work of Dr. Judith Herman, trauma recovery is thought to occur in three main stages: safety and stabilization, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection and integration.
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 people can transcend traumatic experiences and become stronger in ways that they would not have expected. The field of positive psychology also teaches us that when we focus on our strengths and resources, we feel less damaged, broken, and helpless.
When it first happens, a traumatic incident can shake the core of a person’s life. Depending on the magnitude of the trauma, it disorients a person's sense of safety, and his or her sense of self. Nothing seems the same after that event. It’s hard to imagine getting back to the life and the person they were before. This can lead to emotional instability and a feeling of helplessness. People might become irritable, anxious, hypervigilant, confused, and they might feel out of control.
Let’s look at the first stage of trauma recovery...
The first stage of trauma recovery 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 the person’s bedroom, a favorite vacation spot, or a place in nature like the beach or the redwoods. Other resources that can be utilized include times when the person has felt proud of themselves, or has overcome adversity.
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. Dr. Janina Fisher describes the need to “metabolize” the memory of the trauma, and suggests EMDR therapy as one way to do that.
Dr. Arielle Schwartz describes beautifully how mind-body therapies like EMDR therapy and somatic experiencing help a client consolidate the memories in an adaptive way, so that it is part of the client’s narrative of themselves, rather than stored in the memory in a haphazard way. Somatic approaches can also release the physical energy that was trapped in a person’s body when they went through the trauma.
Sometimes, the trauma happened during birth or before the person had language to express themselves. Other times, there are no words that we can put to the physical experience, which can make it very hard to work with that therapeutically. However, 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 a client to vacillate between focusing on the physical and emotional reaction to the trauma, and then focus on a positive or calming resource, and then back to the reaction. The client does this back and forth until they can tolerate the reaction better. This is just one of many ways to work with the remembrance and mourning stage 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, and 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 can also grieve losing a sense of innocence or the quality of your relationship to others or to yourself.
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, or that “everything happens for a reason.” While that may be true, often it hurts to hear if you’re not ready to hear it. 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.