People affected by trauma tend to feel unsafe in their bodies and in their relationships with others. Regaining a sense of safety may take days to weeks with acutely traumatized individuals or months to years with individuals who have experienced ongoing/chronic abuse. Figuring out what areas of life need to be stabilized and how that will be accomplished will be helpful in moving toward recovery. For example:
Metaphor for creating safety:
The experience of emotional overwhelm is similar to that of a shaken bottle of soda. Inside the bottle is a tremendous amount of pressure. The safest way to release the pressure is to open and close the cap in a slow, cautious and intentional manner so as to prevent an explosion. (Rothschild, 2010)
This task shifts to processing the trauma, putting words and emotions to it and making meaning of it. This process is usually undertaken with a counselor or therapist in group and/or individual therapy. It might not be necessary or required to spend a lot of time in this phase. It is however necessary to be continuing to attend to safety and stability during this phase. Attending to safety allows the persona affected by trauma to move through this phase in a way that integrates the story of the trauma rather than reacts to it in a fight, flight or freeze response.
Pacing and timing are crucial during this phase. If the person affected by trauma becomes quickly overwhelmed and emotionally flooded when talking about their trauma memories, safety and stability must be regained before moving further on with the story. The point is not to “re-live” the trauma but nor is it to tell the story with no emotions attached.
This phase involves the important task of exploring and mourning the losses associated with the trauma and providing space to grieve and express their emotions.
In this phase there must now be a creation a new sense of self and a new future. This final task involves redefining oneself in the context of meaningful relationships. Through this process, the trauma no longer is a defining and organizing principle is someone’s life. The trauma becomes integrated into their life story but is not the only story that defines them.
In this third stage of recovery, the person affected by trauma recognizes the impact of the victimization but are now ready to take concrete steps towards empowerment and self determined living.
In some instances, people who have experienced trauma find a mission through which they can continue to heal and grow, such as talking to youth, or peer mentoring. Successful resolution of the effects of trauma is a powerful testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Recovery is an individual process and will look different for everyone. There is an intense desire to feel well quickly and individuals can feel that the process is taking too long or they are not doing it “right”. Recovery is not defined by complete absence of thoughts or feelings about the traumatic experience but being able to live with it in a way that it isn’t in control of your life. It is important to gentle, patient and compassionate with yourself as you move through this healing process.