What is Trauma?
Words like traumatic, triggered, and dysregulated have become more common in day to day talk. This can be especially true if you follow self help influencers on social media as part of your healing journey of personal growth. While having the words to express how you feel is one of the first steps to healing, the nuance of meaning can sometimes get lost in the social media character limits. So what is trauma and recovery and what can make it so complex? Trauma is an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally threatening and has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s physical, social, emotional, or spiritual functioning and well-being. Now, let’s break that down a little…
Trauma is something that activates (or triggers) a person’s survival instinct (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) and the brain and nervous system is unable to fully deactivate and process the survival instinct activation. This experience, or set of experiences, are no longer something that happened to a person. The experience becomes how this person defines themselves. This impacts how they behave in their day to day lives and their healing journey of personal growth. For example, I have feelings and I have experiences, and these feelings and experiences can inform my present decisions, but I am NOT my feelings and experiences. When someone has experienced trauma, especially complex trauma, it’s as if they cannot separate their “self”, their worth, or their capacities from their emotions and experiences. They BECOME their emotions and their past experiences.
The breadth and depth of trauma and recovery research is rich and nuanced, and not everything will be covered here. My hope is that at the end of this article, you will have a little more understanding of your experiences, have the ability to show yourself compassion during your personal growth, and if you are in struggle, the words to ask for support.
Stages of Recovery
Recovery is possible. Recovery is a practice and not a perfection. Recovery is not something that can be mastered or checked off of a list. Recovery (and healing) is a journey. In the stages of recovery there are ups and downs, turns and detours. Journeys are not supposed to be perfect, they are supposed to be transformative. By continually learning about who you truly are, you can continue to grow and integrate your past experiences into your present moment. Recovery is the act of mindfulness and becoming aware of your patterns and continuing them, restructuring them, or changing them completely. As you become your true self and true to yourself, you can see more clearly what is getting in the way of your recovery and your healing journey of personal growth.
A Healing Relationship
One of the main factors of psychological trauma is how it wants to isolate you from yourself and others. Recovery cannot happen in isolation. While the symptoms of trauma try to pull you away from your relationships with others, and even yourself, it is only with connection to others that you can fully process and heal.
These relationships can happen in therapy where a trained therapist validates your experiences and supports you as you regain control over your emotions and behaviors rather than being controlled by them. These healing relationships can also develop with friends and chosen family by using the tools you learn in therapy to openly share yourself with others. It is like trauma not only wants to disrupt your functioning and regulatory mechanisms, but trick you into thinking you are alone. But you are not alone.
Since trauma doesn’t like to be spoken about, you don’t often hear about other’s trauma and realize just how common trauma is. Trauma also doesn’t like to give you credit for all the coping tools you had to develop to survive. You wouldn’t be here today without the strategies you developed to cope (whether you are proud of these strategies or not), and it is against trauma’s nature to validate you for your strengths. That is why you need to surround yourself with people who support your safety and healing and give yourself credit for your courage and resilience.
Safety: Naming the Problem and Restoring Control
The stages of recovery are not linear; they are more organic as earlier issues are revisited at elevated levels of integration. What makes trauma and recovery so sneaky is that it can be difficult to recall the traumatic history and therefore you might even question or deny its existence. Typically, in times of life transition, when you are being called to use all of your coping and life skills to adjust and thrive, something is stopping you or holding you back. All of a sudden, what others may consider everyday life stressors, trigger your survival instinct of fight, flight, fawn , or freeze. This causes dysregulation (you get agitated or you shut down) or hyperarousal (feeling extreme anxiety, anger, depression, or numbness). Instead of thriving, your body keeps you in a constant state of survival mode. This is great if you are running from a bear, this is not great if you are just trying to go grocery shopping.
Asking for, and then actually accepting help is an act of courage. Acknowledging your reality and the reality of your trauma responses is a sign of strength, initiative, and personal growth. This is in contrast to the shame and defeat that survivors often feel when accepting a diagnosis related to complex trauma. Trauma robs you of your sense of power and control, so a major aspect of recovery is flipping the script from shame to courage and passivity to initiative. Creating a safe environment for you to ask and accept support may require major changes in your life such as where you live, who you interact with, and how you make money.
Remembrance and Mourning: Reconstructing the Story and Transforming the Memory
After the safety stage of recovery is established, it is now time to tell your healing story of the trauma. Reconstruction of the traumatic memory allows you to more effectively integrate it into your life story. A therapist can play the role of ally and witness to your story and support you as you begin to speak about what can feel like the unspeakable. As the story is told, there is a constant check in and balance of safety and the need to face the past.
This is a time to be kind and compassionate to yourself. To slow down, support yourself, and be supported in your healing. While reconstructing the story may increase symptoms significantly, it is only for a short time and only so the memory and your mind and body’s reaction to the memory can be transformed. You are not your trauma. You have experienced trauma, but it does not define who you are. You are worthy of love. You are worthy of all the things you want in your life. Your worth is not based on what was done to you and what you did as a result to cope and survive.
Reconnection: Empowerment, Reconciling with Oneself, and Finding a Mission
While trauma likes to isolate and make its “victims” feel helpless, recovery likes to empower and support survivors in reconnecting and healing. The goal is not to live without fear or to let go of all of the coping and survival skills you learned from the traumatic experience. The goal is to live an enlightened and empowered life, where your past is not a source of shame, but a source of vitality and passion for your present and life’s purpose.
This stage of recovery will be a time of trial and error. Of making mistakes and allowing yourself not to blame yourself or hate yourself for those mistakes. It is a time to cherish unexpected successes with pride and love. It is a time to regain your ability to be autonomous and free while staying connected with others. You may now understand that those who try to forget the past will be condemned to repeat it, physically, mentally, and emotionally. You may now also appreciate how much power you have to transform the meaning of your past personal tragedy to courageous social action in the here and now. Restorative love still exists, and you have the power to bring that to the communities and people you live and work with.
What’s Next: Commonality
The stages of recovery and your healing journey of personal growth is not linear, but consists of many detours and turning backs. Acts of re-visiting issues that have already been addressed deepen and expand your integration of the meaning of the traumatic experience. This kind of personal growth can, at times, lead to deep despair that your journey will never end. Solidarity and community can be one of the strongest protectors against despair. Remember, trauma likes to isolate and dehumanize, whereas connection likes to create belonging, support, and restore humanity.
If what you just read resonates with you, and you want to meet with someone to see how trauma and recovery may be impacting your current mental health, please reach out to us. The Center for Growth has a compassionate and competent community of therapists who are here for you. I would be honored to meet with you to talk more, you can self schedule an in-person or virtual individual or couples therapy session HERE or by calling the Center for Growth at (215) 922-5683 x 100.
For your convenience we have 5 physical offices and provide virtual therapy services in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico and Virginia.
Ocean City Therapy Office
360 West Ave, Floor 1, Ocean City, NJ 08226
Mechanicsville Therapy Office
9044 Mann Drive, Mechanicsville Virginia, 23116
Society Hill Therapy Office
233 S. 6th Street, C-33, Philadelphia PA 19106
Art Museum / Fairmount Therapy Office
2401 Pennsylvania Ave, Suite 1a2, Philadelphia PA 19130
Santa Fe Therapy Office, 2204 B Brothers Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 87505
Telemedicine: We have therapists who are licensed to work in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, Virginia, New Mexico and Pennsylvania
We also offer a wide variety of Support Groups & Therapy Groups in Philadelphia PA & Virtual in NJ & VA, to learn more click HERE.
You deserve the best therapist possible and this begins with matching you with the right therapist. Check out our GUARANTEE. We are here to support you in your personal growth and healing journey through individual and group support and therapy.
Resource: Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and recovery. New York: BasicBooks