Recovery from trauma can be a complicated, long, and difficult process. In truth, a traumatic experience is not always something that a person can get over, but there are ways to heal and work through a traumatic experience. Trauma recovery is about stabilization, healing, and building back mental and emotional strength that may have been damaged by the trauma.
Trauma occurs when an event or series of events happens to a person that threatens their safety, or they witness trauma occurring to another person, or it could also occur when an intense emotional loss happens. These situations can happen in the course of an act of violence, a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, especially in disturbing or unusual circumstances, or after experiences of abuse.
Trauma causes recurring, intrusive, distressful memories or thoughts related to the trauma, flashbacks or nightmares of the trauma, and physiological reactions such as fatigue or insomnia. The psychological impact on those who suffer from trauma-related symptoms can be intense and painful. Recovery from trauma involves learning to live with the new reality created by the trauma, processing the event and the emotional response to the trauma, and learning to both release the emotional pain and simultaneously accept that there may always remain some pain. It can be incredibly daunting for people who feel vulnerable and injured from a traumatic event.
Whether you have experienced a trauma yourself, or you know someone who has, it is important to understand some of the things trauma survivors need in order to recover and heal from a traumatic event in their life. Here are some of the most important aspects of trauma recovery that I have found are needed to support those who have experienced a trauma:
Trauma often involves a threat to personal safety or the safety of someone you care about. This can happen due to exposure to war or other civilian violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, or in the case of the death of a loved one or the near death of yourself. That threat to safety causes survivors to live in a state of hyper-arousal, due to an ingrained instinct for survival. When your safety is threatened, you have to drop everything and try to achieve a sense of safety again before you can move forward with your life. This is why is is so important for trauma survivors to feel safe. This might be accomplished by increasing security at home or other areas, or by avoiding areas that trigger a sense of fear or safety threat. It may also mean building a sense of emotional safety by setting boundaries with others or limiting contact with people who have been abusive.
A major barrier to healing from trauma is when survivors are not believed when they talk about or report their experiences. When you have experienced a traumatic event, and then are told that you are a liar or that you are exaggerating your experience for attention, this causes further trauma. A world that already doesn’t feel safe feels even more threatening. Survivors may feel that they are being blamed for their own victimization, or that their own word about their personal experience is not valid. If you are not in the position of a court of law that needs to make judgements about an event to determine legal procedures, then you do not need to appoint yourself as the judge and jury of someone’s experience. Leave the evidence questions to the courts, and be supportive of the people you care about. If you have been traumatized, seek support from those who do believe you, and limit your engagement with those who express disbelief or judgement about your trauma. It can be incredibly painful when those who are supposed to care about you do not believe you, but there is support out there from professionals and advocates that can help.
People who have experienced a trauma need to be understood in addition to being believed. Validating someone’s experience by listening to their story and understanding why the experience has impacted them in the way that is has is key to trauma recovery. Trauma survivors need to know that the people around them that care about them are listening and understanding them, so that they feel safe expressing themselves and working through the process of healing. Validation can be provided by family, friends, caregivers, helping professionals, and communities. Feeling validated that your trauma is understood by others to be real and impactful can help you feel supported when you are trying to recover from a traumatic experience.
Empathy is different from sympathy, in that sympathy means to feel sorry for someone, whereas empathy means to really understand how someone is feeling. Trauma survivors benefit from receiving empathy from those who have experienced similar traumas, or who can relate to the feelings a trauma survivor is experiencing. This can be done through support groups or through group therapy, or by talking to a friend who has gone through a similar experience. Being engaged with others who truly understand your trauma can help you feel less isolated and more validated throughout the healing process. You don’t have to experience the exact same thing to be empathetic, though. If you want to help by empathizing with a trauma survivor, you can do so by trying to relate to their feelings of fear, shame, loss, and uncertainty. This doesn’t mean that you need to relay all the times when you have felt those emotions as well, as you don’t want to turn the conversation back around to yourself when you’re trying to be supportive. But it can mean just saying that you understand what is is like to have those feelings, and you want to support their healing throughout their recovery process.
Traumatic events often occur with an accompanying loss of control. If someone has been violent towards you or violated your rights, you probably felt out of control during the event because your power was taken from you at that moment. If you have experienced a loss or are grieving, you may feel out of control due to an inability to prevent a death or other losses from happening, and knowing that you do not have the power to bring them back. Reinstating power in other areas of your life can help you regain that sense of control that was lost during the trauma. This might mean reclaiming your right to set boundaries with other people or systems, or it might mean learning to say NO in stronger and more assertive ways in response to things you don’t want to do. It may also mean finding ways to heal through advocacy, such as mothers who have lost children to drunk driving do when they join an organization like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Finding ways to exert your power in a healthy and productive way can help the trauma recovery process. If you want to support someone who has been traumatized, helping them to reclaim that power and respecting their choices about how to reclaim that power can be one way to support those individuals.
Trauma recovery is a unique process for each person who has been through a traumatic event. While the recovery process might involve therapy, support groups, learning new coping skills, advocating for needed changes, and reclaiming lost power, each person’s needs will be different. Some people may find power in forgiveness, while others may feel that they need to hold onto their anger for awhile. That has to be okay, because no one should dictate how a trauma survivor recovers. When we dictate how trauma survivors find their path to recovery, we actually disempower them, which is counter-productive. Instead, listening and supporting people without judgement or attempts to convince them what they need to do is more effective and helpful. Keeping these 5 needs in mind when we try to support the people in our lives who have experienced trauma will help us all to be better friends, family members, and neighbors to those who have already been through enough trauma.