The Three Phases of Trauma Recovery
Recovering from trauma is not something that someone can do for you. It is a process that you navigate yourself with the support and guidance of experienced therapists.
Psychiatrist and trauma expert Judith L. Herman writes about trauma recovery as a three-part process. Establishing safety, retelling the story, and reconnecting with others. Herman believes trauma destroys the social systems of care, protection, and meaning that support human life. So to recover from trauma means rebuilding these internal systems.
Psychological trauma causes disempowerment and disconnection, taking from the victim their sense of power and control over their own life. Recovery means to feel empowered and create connections. Recovery includes others and does not happen in isolation. However, the survivor must have full control of their recovery. “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.” (Herman, 1998)
Establishing safety is stage one of the three phases of trauma recovery and must happen before any form of therapeutic work takes place. You will only begin to recover once you feel safe. You must have physical safety, psychological safety, and feel safe in your body. Herman believes safety begins with control of your body and gradually moves outward to control of your environment. Feeling out of control of your body, your emotions and thinking are common symptoms of trauma.
Taking the advice of Bessel Van Der Kolk, I recommend yoga to all survivors of trauma to begin the process of feeling in control of your body. Yoga helps reconnect your mind and body, feel again, and learn ways to control your physical self. You might need to nurture your basic health needs, regulate your sleeping, eating and exercise routines, and abstain from substances to feel in control of yourself.
Practically, you need to ensure a safe living environment, financial security, and free movement. If you recognise your living situation as unsafe, please get support (click here) urgently. There are many charities that can help, finding your way through this fully in a difficult situation is not always possible. Take one small step and allow that to propel you onto the next step.
Retelling your Story
When you feel safe in yourself, your life, and with your therapist, you have the conditions to begin telling your story. Herman suggests the retelling is in depth and in detail, with the belief that this reconstruction work transforms your traumatic memory / memories so you can integrate them into your life story. Your therapist is your cheerleader and witness, providing the safe environment for you to speak about the nightmares of your past, but the choice to do so remains with you. Together, you can fit the pieces of the puzzle, so what was a confused jumble of images and sensations becomes a clear, detailed, account with a timeline and context. Your story will include the events, your emotional response, and the response of the people that surround/ed you.
Maintaining the safety of stage one of the three phases of trauma recovery is paramount. It is important that you speak openly with your therapist about how you feel as you go through the process of recovery. This work is uncomfortable in many ways, and you should work only at a pace that is tolerable for you.
Herman includes grief in the retelling stage of recovery. She believes this is a necessary, but dreaded part of recovery from trauma. Taking the first step into grief feels huge, as though once you start, you will never stop. You mourn situations and experiences that you can never replace. Your childhood, for example. For some people, a loss of trust and belief in others.
Recognition that you were not responsible for your traumatic experiences opens the gateway to feelings you suppressed. If you feel guilt or shame for things you did because of your own extreme circumstances, you may grieve for the loss of your own moral integrity, and then find a way to move forward and, if necessary, make restitution. Making restitution does not remove responsibility for your actions, but helps you recognise the power you have over your choices now.
The pain you feel when retelling your story feels like it will remain forever. Although it may take longer to move through the process than you wish, it will not go on forever, and eventually the retelling of your story will no longer cause such an intense feeling. It remains part of your experience, much like other memories. It fades like they do and loses its strength as it becomes part of your life story, alongside other equally, and sometimes more, important parts.
When you have mourned your old self, you can develop a new self.
Reconnecting with Ordinary Life
In the third stage of the three phases of trauma recovery, your traumatic experience/s belong in the past. It is the time to rebuild your life in the present and think about your future, recovering pre-trauma ambitions or creating new aspirations.
Maintaining the focus on caring for your body and the environment around you from the first stage of recovery will help you engage in the world. You have newfound trust in others, and the ability to determine when someone warrants trust. You have the power to take control of yourself and connect to others. Creating boundaries and respecting boundaries becomes possible. You can form new, deep, authentic relationships. You may find yourself ready for greater intimacy in current relationships, and gain the sight to see how your trauma affected these relationships.
Although, at this point of recovery, you recognise the trauma cannot be undone and compensation or revenge cannot happen, you see the importance of holding the perpetrator accountable for their crimes. Whether you take public action or tell the truth publicly, you halt the perpetrator’s reign, possibly for the well-being of others, or for your own knowledge.
If you feel ready to take the first step towards recovering from trauma, please click below to book a free initial consultation.
HERMAN, J.L. (1998), Recovery from psychological trauma. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52: S98-S103. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1440-1819.1998.0520s5S145.x