Experiencing trauma can have wide-ranging effects on a person. While everyone experiences trauma through their lens or perception, common stages occur during the recovery process.
Sue Adamson, a trauma informed therapist from Kamloops, British Columbia, explores these stages and offers tips for patients healing from trauma.
What is Trauma?
Trauma can result from experiencing a highly stressful life event. Some examples of situations that can produce a single episode trauma are natural disasters, accidents, being in war zones, or being the victim of a crime or violent attack. Complex trauma or compounded trauma is a result of experiencing multiple stressful life events such as physical, mental, emotional abuse, the sudden death of a loved one, loss of a primary relationship, illness, job loss, life changes due to COVID. Not everyone who experiences these events develops symptoms of trauma.
Some victims of trauma recover within a few weeks, while others find that they have longer-lasting symptoms. Some medications combined with trauma-informed therapy can support trauma victims increase their resilience and self-empowerment through healing the trauma.
Symptoms of Trauma
Trauma is a shock to the nervous system that can manifest physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Trauma survivors may experience anxiety or depression. They may emotionally feel helpless, overwhelmed, or numb, they may experience hypervigilance in which the nervous system is in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. Trauma can also bring on physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and a racing heart.
Many trauma survivors have difficulty processing their negative experiences. No matter what type of trauma the survivor has experienced, studies have shown that seeking support from a mental health professional to work through the traumatic event can lessen the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs when trauma is not properly processed. Instead of recovering gradually over time, a person with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD may worsen. This disorder may affect as many as 7 to 8 percent of the American population, and it disproportionately impacts women.
Post-traumatic stress disorder often causes a trauma survivor to be entrenched in a constant “fight or flight” response for months or years at a time. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be harder to treat than the initial acute trauma, and for this reason, trauma survivors should seek out support as soon as possible.
The Three Stages of Recovery from Trauma
Following are the three stages of trauma recovery, according to Sue Adamson. These stages are necessary to recover fully.
The first step toward recovering from trauma is establishing a sense of safety. This can be extremely difficult for many trauma survivors, as the negative event rocked the foundations of their world.
The first stage of establishing safety is achieving internal safety through continued stabilization. Survivors are encouraged to nurture their physical, mental, and emotional health by establishing healthy habits and routines. Avoiding sugar and choosing healthy foods, sleep hygiene, regular gentle exercise, and implementing healthy stress management strategies such as mindfulness and yoga will reduce the risk of relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
Clinicians are aware that self-harming and self-destructive behaviors are the survivor’s attempts to manage their symptoms in order to normalize themselves. This stage of recovery requires compassion and understanding while promoting continued stabilization through developing healthy coping mechanisms.
This stage of recovery also includes increasing a sense of safety in the world. Survivors are supported in deducing the risk of repeating unhealthy behaviors by removing themselves from potentially dangerous situations or unhealthy relationships that may encourage unhealthy coping methods. Survivors are encouraged to focus on cultivating a healthy living environment by creating a healthy physical living space. They are also encouraged to seek out healthy support systems. This first phase of trauma recovery can be lengthy, and patience is required both on the survivor’s part and the clinician’s part.
Retelling the Traumatic Event
The next step in trauma recovery is the integration of the traumatic event into the survivor’s personal history. Remembering the event helps the survivor place the events in the past and gives the memory a “temporal dimension.” Clinicians can use a variety of trauma-informed modalities to support the survivor in processing the traumatic event in order to integrate it fully into the survivor’s life story. A traumatic event can often be thought of as the death of part of the self. The recovery process can allow for rebirth and post-traumatic growth.
Reconnecting with Others
The third stage of trauma recovery is coming to terms with the event or events through acceptance that the traumatic event or events occurred. This stage involves using the energy taken up with processing the event(s) to put the event(s) in a place of honor in the past. Through this acceptance, the survivor no longer defines themselves by the event or their past.
Reconnecting with people means acknowledging that the survivor was once a victim and also acknowledging the strength and courage that is required to integrate what they have learned through their trauma recovery into their daily lives.
Trauma survivors are encouraged to seek out the support of a mental health professional as soon as possible in order to understand and process the traumatic event, integrate the trauma into their life story, and move forward with greater understanding, strength, and resilience.
Sue Adamson believes that all trauma survivors can recover given the appropriate help. She reassures trauma survivors that their experiences are real and that they too can choose to heal their life story.