Recovery from trauma

Pathway to recovery from trauma

Recovery from trauma as an individual journey

Before I dive into the generic definition of trauma, I want to emphasize that each individual has a unique journey when it comes to recovery from trauma. Many different influence factors shape this journey like the intensity and/or frequency of the traumatic incidents, the type of trauma, whether it was related to individual or systemic violence or the age when the events happened.

Recovery from trauma has its ups and downs. Some people feel disappointed in recovery because it is not a linear process that goes continuously upwards. Sometimes, we may fall back into old patterns that we thought we already had overcome. I usually invite my clients to see these events that may appear like a set-back an opportunity for growth and deepening the healing journey. However, independent on our healing journey, recovery leads to more fulfillment and well-being in our lives in the long run. The more we heal ourselves, the more we are able to focus on what is life-giving.

I love the perspective on recovery that one of my instructors used: she compared recovery with an upwards spiral – each one of us has certain themes in our lives that may show up more than once. However, each time we revisit the theme again, we integrate it at a deeper level. I am aware that this pattern has happened in my life. How about yours?

Trauma due to systemic violence

Please note that recovery from incidents of systemic violence like systemic racism, colonization, or oppression looks different than recovery from individual violence. This journey of recovery looks different since our society is built on a “power-over” dynamic. Therefore, systemic violence is intrinsically built into our systems, like institutions, organizations, or communities. While these dynamics are toxic and not ok, these systemic dynamics need to be considered to define a healthy journey of recovery.

Systemic context matters

For our recovery, we need to consider the systemic context – how are/ were we shaped by our families, the communities, institutions and social norms, and historical forces. A power-over system causes trauma because it prioritizes the safety, belonging, and dignity of the dominant group. Therefore, white, cis, heterosexual individuals are shaped differently than Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, gender or sexually diverse people, and people living with disabilities. Therefore,  recovery needs to move beyond our families and immediate environments and explore how we were shaped by the society we were born into and how we can change it.

 

Definition of recovery

SAMHSA offers the following working definition of recovery:

“A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

While this definition describes the essence of recovery, it’s also a simplified perspective. It is natural and common to have fears and concerns about recovery since it means jumping into the unknown. When I first started my healing journey, I had no idea what would expect of me and how it might change my life. I also couldn’t relate to concepts like “striving for my full potential.”

When I looked back at this journey, the following quote by Joseph Campbell resonates with me:

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”  Joseph Campbell

Recovery needs healthy and healing relationships

Judith Herman describes the essence of trauma as disempowerment and disconnection from others (p.). Therefore, recovery needs to be based on the empowerment of the client and the creation of new relationships. Finding healing and healthy relationships is a vital element of recovery. It cannot happen in isolation.

Recovery needs a safe(r) space where we feel seen and accepted without judgment. Recovery does not mean that we change the facts that happened to us. However, we can choose to work through the effects of what happened to us. Over time, the emotions will be released and the painful events lose the power they once had over our lives. They will start to fade away and be in the past.

 

Stages of recovery from trauma

A trauma-informed model for recovery involves different stages to ensure that past experiences are respected. Clients are prepared to face their experiences in a safer way so that they don’t get overwhelmed by them.

Here is the overview of the model I follow which is based on Judith Herman’s work and a trauma-informed model that integrates EMDR. Please note that the phases may be not as clearly separated during recovery.

Phase 1: Safety, stabilization, skill-building, and strength-building

Many people who have experienced trauma have a sense of feeling unsafe in the world. Their emotions may feel uncontrollable and overwhelming. While the specific goals in this phase depend on the specific context of the client, there is a focus on increasing the sense of safety for the client and learning skills to self-soothe and ground. Furthermore, there is an element of psycho-education in this phase, so that the client understands better their symptoms and feels empowered to navigate them. Additionally, there may be a need to avoid or limit potentially harmful situations.

Phase 2: Trauma resolution and mourning

When clients feel stabilized and confident in their skills to manage their emotions, clients are introduced to working with traumatic memories. In my practice, I use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to resolve trauma. I’ll write about it in more depth in the future. The reprocessing happens on different levels- emotionally, mentally and within the body. EMDR allows clients to choose how much they want to disclose about their past memories.

Trauma also produces losses. These losses need to be mourned. They depend on what has happened to the individuals and the context of their lives. For example, if people have experienced childhood abuse, a common theme is to mourn the happy and healthy childhood they never had or the loss of trust in other human beings, or the loss of an old self that was destroyed by the trauma. Trauma due to systemic violence produces losses for individuals that may be tangible or intangible, like loss of faith in humanity or loss of hope.

Phase 3: Reconnection

In this phase, the goal is to create a future and define a new self. This may include many different aspects like adjusting the beliefs the individual once had that have lost their meaning, re-assess the values, and re-evaluating the relationships.

It also means to re-visit self-management practices to navigate emotions. In this phase, clients can also expand their responses and behaviors, e.g. exploring new responses to situations that were avoided in the past.

One thread that goes through all phases is the re-connection with our boundaries. Trauma violates our boundaries. Therefore it is essential that we learn to explore our boundaries and increase our awareness about them throughout the process of recovery.

Overall, the phases may not be as clearly separated as they are described here since we may shift between the phases during our recovery. Healthy, healing relationships are an important pillar in recovery from trauma. While these can be found in many places, a collaboration with a counsellor can give individuals a unique way to focus on their recovery.

If you are interested in exploring this option, check out how I can support you.

 

Resources

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA] (2012). SAMHSA’s working definition of recovery. Retrieved from:https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/pep12-recdef.pdf

Haines, S. (2022). Safety, belonging, and dignity: Using the generative power of somatics to heal individual and systemic trauma (online course). Academy of Therapy Wisdom. Retrieved from: https://therapywisdom.com/safety-belonging-and-dignity/

Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books.

Greenwald, R. (2012). EMDR within a phase model of trauma-informed treatment. Routledge

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

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