Can We Ever Fully Heal From Trauma?
February 26, 2019
Psychological trauma occurs as the result of an extraordinarily stressful event that diminishes or destroys your sense of security and involves a threat to life or safety. Traumatic experiences exceed your ability to cope, and your ability to integrate emotions involved with the experience. Psychological trauma can cause you to feel helpless and leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust others. When bad things happen, it can take time to get over the pain and feel safe again. Whether the trauma happened years ago or yesterday, you CAN make healing changes and move forward with your life.
Any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and frightened can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but rather your subjective emotional experience of the event. A situation may be determined to be highly traumatic by one person, and only moderately disturbing to another. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
Recovery from trauma is an individual process and will and look different for everyone. Your unique ability to heal from trauma depends on many factors including your beliefs and perceptions, your level of coping and resiliency, your connection to supportive others, and even your psychological functioning before the event.
Recovery from trauma involves the ability to successfully live in the present without being overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings from the past. Recovery does not constitute a complete absence of memories or feelings associated with the traumatic event, but rather it involves placing the event behind you and living joyfully, so that the event is no longer in control of your emotions or your life. Trauma recovery should be considered to be a process that is worked through over time and in intentional stages.
Stages of Recovery
Stage One: Safety, Stabilization, and Overcoming Dysregulation
The first step in recovering from trauma involves reestablishing feelings of safety and stability. Traumatized individuals often do not feel safe in their bodies and their relationships. Regaining a sense of safety involves creating a secure and predictable environment where you are free from physical and emotional injury and have established a degree of emotional stability. This involves the ability to calm your body, soothe your mind, and to be able to manage posttraumatic symptoms such as flashbacks and nightmares that may be triggered by common events. The goal of this stage should be to improve life on a daily basis and not continue to re-live the trauma.
Stage Two: Remembrance, Mourning, and Coming to Terms with Traumatic Memories
This stage involves overcoming fear of the traumatic memories so they may become integrated into your sense of self. This stage is best approached with the assistance of a psychologist or other health care professional who can assist you through the healing process. During this stage of healing, therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are utilized. Pacing is important during this stage so that you do not become stuck in avoidance or overwhelmed by flashbacks, avoidance issues, or painful memories. Although the rush may be to eliminate the trauma and rapidly heal, often slower is better. Imagine that you wish to train for a marathon. If you began day one of training with a 15-mile run, you may end up with injuries and pulled muscles, thus delaying your end goal and forcing you to begin again. The same applies to trauma recovery. A slow and steady approach that does not “injure” or overwhelm you is the fastest way to success. The goal at this stage is to come to terms with the traumatic event.
This phase also involves the important task of exploring and mourning the losses associated with the trauma and finding a space to grieve and express your emotions. Connection to others is particularly important during this phase. Trauma is considered to be a disconnective disorder, which means it does not typically improve in isolation. To best heal from trauma, you need to be connected to others.
Stage Three: Reconnection and Integration
In this stage, you create a new sense of self and a new future which involves redefining yourself in regards to meaningful relationships. During this stage, the trauma is no longer a driving force in your life. The trauma becomes part of your life story, although it is no longer the primary story that defines you. You begin to feel empowered and embrace life with purpose and meaning.
Throughout these three stages, it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to heal. In the first three stages, you are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Every individual will progress through these stages in a unique manner and at a unique pace and there is no correct way to feel or to heal. The more you accept your feelings and emotions while going through these stages, the more easily you will achieve healing.
Stage Four: Posttraumatic Growth (PTG)
After the three stages are accomplished, the goal is to progress to the stage of posttraumatic growth (PTG). Posttraumatic growth is the phase where you may be changed by your experience of trauma and adversity, sometimes in exceptionally powerful ways. Posttraumatic growth is achieved when positive psychological changes are experienced as a result of the trauma or adversity, and this raises you to a higher level of functioning than you may otherwise have achieved. Most individuals at this stage report that they would not take away their histories of trauma, despite the psychological pain they endured, because it made them who they are today. Posttraumatic growth is not about returning to life as it was before the experience, but instead, it is a shift in thinking about how you relate to the world. Many individuals at this stage become advocates for those who are in need or become a voice for those who are abused or traumatized. Some individuals use their experiences to assist others through a healing process.
By progressing through these stages, it is possible to fully recover from the effects of trauma and live a meaningful and rewarding life. Recovery does not constitute a complete absence of thoughts or feelings associated with the traumatic event, but rather it is the ability to place the event in proper perspective and successfully rise above the event so that it is no longer in control of your emotions or your life. Recovery from trauma is a testament to the strength and tenacity of the human spirit and the secret to living a life of purpose and meaning.
About the Author: Dr. Susan Spicer is a licensed psychologist specializing in forensic neuropsychology and therapy for trauma-related disorders. She is a member of the clinical team at BRAINS in Grand Rapids, Michigan.