The Three Stages of Trauma Recovery
Judith Lewis Herman, a psychiatrist, teacher, researcher, and prolific author, dedicated her life to closely studying the impact of trauma on traumatic stress on the human psyche. She is currently a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard University Medical School and a founding member of the Women’s Mental Health Collective. She is well-known for the important contributions she has made to the realm of trauma treatment, and her second book, Trauma and Recovery, is currently used by many healthcare professionals as a classic study of the diagnostic category PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this book, Herman presents a detailed model which describes the complex healing process of individuals who have undergone significant trauma and struggle with a combination of personal problems as a result.
According to Herman, these personal problems may include:
- Anger and aggression
- Emotional numbness and detachment
- Dissociation (losing time, blanking out, etc.)
- Trouble regulating emotions
- Difficulty managing impulse control
- Engaging in self-harm
- Behavioral addictions (sex, gambling, porn, etc.)
In the book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman presents three main stages of trauma recovery. While the stages will vary significantly based on the individual, they provide a realistic and beneficial guide for those attempting to permanently overcome the lasting, devastating effects of past traumatic experience. There are several core issues that can be used to more successfully determine a clear path for recovery
These issues include shame and guilt, powerlessness, the unintentional reenactment of past abuse, and deep-seated feelings of distrust. During the first stage of trauma treatment, these specific dynamics must be addressed – especially when they pose an immediate threat to the safety of the patient. Oftentimes, these themes will prove obstacles when it comes to practising adequate self-care and regulating emotions and behavioural patterns.
Therapy and Coaching can help to bring a greater awareness to and increased understanding of these issues and dynamics, therefore providing individuals with an increased ability to take full responsibility for them. Once responsibility has been taken, new, healthier forms of coping can be adopted.
The 3 Stages of Trauma Recovery
The first stage of overcoming trauma-related problems is about:
- Developing a personal ‘road map’ of the healing process.
- Developing realistic and attainable goals, and setting up a plan of action for achieving those goals in a practical time frame.
- Establishing a sense of stability and safety in interpersonal relationships, one’s own body, and all other areas of life.
- Learning how to regulate emotions, and how to manage psychological and behavioural symptoms that may contribute to a sense of instability and overall personal suffering.
- Beginning to recognize and tap into sources of inner strength.
- Developing crucial coping mechanisms and life skills, geared towards effectively managing painful experiences and regulating emotional, mental, and physical responses.
The main goals of stage one are developing a sense of personal safety, cultivating a crucial self care routine and learning to regulate emotions and behaviours in a healthy and efficient way. Once these necessary skills become fully integrated into your life you will be able to work through painful memories with far less mental and emotional repercussion. It is not always necessary to work through memories, this is completely an individually assessed area of Coaching.
The next stage of trauma recovery is frequently referred to as “remembrance and mourning”. Once an individual has developed a strong and functional set of coping skills and feels completely safe and secure in their surroundings, it becomes possible to address long buried memories.
The main work that the second stage of trauma recovery involves is:
- Discussing and evaluating painful and traumatic memories with the intention of restructuring the role they play in your life.
- Working through trauma-related grief brought about by unwanted or abusive experiences, and the impact they had and do have on your life.
- Mourning the loss of good experiences that have not yet occurred, or did not have the chance to occur, because of persistent, trauma-related symptoms.
Discussing painful memories is not always necessary to achieve the personal goals established in the first stage of trauma recovery – remember, stages will vary dependent on personal history and character. Some people may find that memories that were once perceived as too painful to examine are no longer causing any grief or inner turmoil.
If memories are still disruptive and have been found to continuously pose a threat to long-term recovery from related issues, there are several ‘memory processing’ methods that can be employed during this stage of recovery. i.e EMDR & Sensorimotor therapy.
The third and final stage of trauma recovery focuses largely on reconnecting with people, personally meaningful activities, and all other aspects of a fulfilled and healthy life. During this stage, you will need to develop a new sense of self. Traumatic experiences will no longer play a defining role in your life – you will be mentally and emotionally set free from the painful and limiting chains of the past. Steps towards self-actualization and empowerment will be taken, and the human spirit, in all of its awe-inspiring resiliency, will begin truly and thoroughly recovering from the devastating effects of traumatic experiences.
It is important to keep in mind the fact that recovery is a highly individualized process, and will look quite different for every unique individual. It is common for those who have suffered at the hands of trauma to want to feel better as quickly as possible. However, recovering from anything is a process – one that requires both consistency, commitment and self-compassion. Recovering from trauma does not mean you will be completely free of intrusive thoughts or feelings – rather, you will reclaim your life, love, and your authentic self.
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