Stages of Trauma Recovery

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trauma informed stages of trauma recovery

One of the most puzzling things new clients will tell me is, “Oh I haven’t experienced any trauma.” After they’ve listed all the things they are looking for help with — the relational issues, anxiety, crises of faith, and sleep disturbances, to a name a few, they somehow don’t understand that these symptoms came from somewhere.

Often when we think of trauma we think capital T, big TRAUMA. Major life threatening situations. But trauma can be more widely defined as negative experiences that trigger our fight, flight, or freeze response. You can even experience trauma when you witness someone else experience a traumatic event. The danger with such secondary trauma is that since it didn’t happen to you personally, you don’t feel the freedom to react and process the trauma as needed.

Everyone has experienced trauma to some degree and in those traumatic experiences we make nano-second decisions about how best to cope. While those decisions often keep us safe in the moment, they also can set us up for difficulty later in life when those coping skills no longer are helpful or we’ve come under lies we believed in the moment of trauma. Our bodies also try their best to cope when we experience trauma and when traumatic experiences are not resolved the brain especially stays in a constant state of trauma.

Lashing out in anger might be a great coping skill when you’re three years old and feeling threatened, but when you’re thirty-three and have angry outbursts that seem to come of out nowhere it’s not such a great coping skill anymore. Inner healing and mind-body work can help address these faulty coping skills and help your body move on from the memory of trauma.

Stages of Trauma Recovery

It is generally accepted that trauma informed care and trauma recovery takes place in three stages: stage 1 safety and stabilization, stage 2 trauma processing, and stage 3 consolidation and resolution. Each of these stages can last months to years depending on the severity, duration, and age of onset of the trauma. The stages also may not follow one another directly, with breaks taken between the stages, and sometimes relapses occur to previous stages of recovery.

Stage 1: Safety and Stabilization

Safety and stabilization is more about crisis than trauma. Imagine someone comes into an emergency room with a broken arm, but they also are on fire. While the hospital staff care about the broken arm and will make sure it gets cared for, the fire has to be dealt with first. There are two sets of goals that are typically worked on in this stage with the help of a  counselor, case worker, or other helping professional.

1st Goal: Basic Health Needs

Regulation of sleep, eating, exercise
, management of post-traumatic symptoms
, and management of destructive behaviors

2nd Goal: Basic Environment Needs

Living situation
, financial security, mobility
, self-protection

As these goals are met, the stability is established to enable later stages of trauma recovery as well as a high-functioning engagement with everyday life. We know that stage 1 of trauma recovery is complete when the person has maintained safety, no longer feels isolated, is able to manage destructive behaviors, is able to manage most post-traumatic symptoms, is able to identify support network, and is able to trust people in their support network. Many people at this point will be done with their recovery. They may not feel ready or desire continuing in digging into traumatic roots and that is ok. After stage 1 is complete a person is able to lead a full life at a reasonably high level of functioning.

Stage 2: Trauma Processing

This is the stage most people think of when they hear “trauma recovery” and is the stage most clients are in when they come to me for help with inner healing. Typically an inner healing practitioner or counselor works with the person on going through all the traumatic memories and taking the incoherent pieces and working it into a more coherent whole. If stage 1 stability is not present, trauma processing can trigger a relapse due to the intense nature of the memories. Processing memories this was in Stage 2 trauma recovery can last years and it is not unusual to take breaks from the processing.

Fortunately, more research is showing that verbal processing alone is not always the most effective means of resolving traumatic memories. The problem with just talking is that the body is left out of the process. Mind-body techniques such as Splankna and tapping can help gently and quickly resolve the body memories so that verbal processing is easier and less triggering.

We know that stage 2 is complete when there are no new traumatic memories to process. Most people that go through trauma recovery stop after this stage.

Stage 3: Consolidation and Resolution

In stage 3 the primary goal is developing a new integrated self. As the person continues to process what their trauma history means to them, in stage 3 they shift from resolving the past to understanding their present and deciding their future trajectory. This stage is where inner healing is especially helpful in identifying faulty coping mechanisms and lies that were believed and dealing with questions like “why did God allow this to happen to me?” While we do deal with lies and faulty coping mechanisms in stage 2 recovery, stage 3 is where we really begin to look forward to the rest of life and how those things have been holding you back.

When stage 3 is complete they will have authority over their traumatic memories, be able to control traumatic symptoms, and have a coherent system of meaning and belief that integrates the trauma.

For more on understanding trauma and trauma recovery:

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk

Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman

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