Healing from Trauma, Part I: Why Can’t I Just Forget About It?

Hand erasing writing on a chalkboardThis article is the first installment of a three-part series written by Susanne discussing how to heal from trauma.

Many individuals who have survived a traumatic life event wish to simply forget about the experience, hoping that forgetting will be synonymous with overcoming. However, it is not possible to erase pivotal life experiences or to truly forget about them. The human mind and body remember and clamor for healing. Healing from the wounds inflicted by a traumatic experience takes time, perseverance, and faith—faith that one will heal, that life will not always be so painful, and that the trauma will not always define one’s sense of self.

If one cannot forget away a traumatic experience, then how does one heal? The process of growing through a traumatic event can be divided into three quasi-linear stages or phases (please see the work of Judith Herman, MD for a detailed discussion of the phases of healing). People move through each one of these stages in their healing journey. The pace at which people grow through the phases varies. Overall, an individual will progress through the three stages even though they may move back and forth between them. This revisiting of past phases is not backward movement but rather an integral part of the healing process. This article will focus on the first phase of healing, which has the central theme of establishing safety.

In phase one, the exploration and establishment of safety refers to both safety within one’s environment and safety within oneself. This first task of healing can take days, weeks or even years to establish. The length of time needed depends on the individual as well as how chronic the traumatic event(s) was. In general, the longer someone was exposed to the trauma, the longer it will take to develop a sense of safety. For many survivors, this can be a difficult stage because it may require a dramatic change in the survivor’s lifestyle.

Establishing External Safety

Safety within one’s environment is based on having a safe living situation, which is often linked to sufficient financial stability. Therefore, one of the psychological tasks of the first phase of healing is to develop enough emotional balance in order to ensure stable, consistent, and productive employment. Once this safe living situation is created, a survivor can begin to hone his or her skillfulness in navigating the world. For some people this may include reclaiming confidence in their ability to move about society (i.e., driving, taking the bus, walking on the street, or interacting with strangers in stores).

For others, confidence will need to be enhanced through being able to determine the potential dangerousness of another person or situation. While it is not possible to control other people’s behaviors, it is possible to learn how to “read” the warning signs of danger. Learning how to identify danger signals increases one’s verbal and physical self-protection. Developing and implementing self-protection skills requires an ability to trust one’s perspective, exercise independent judgment, and take initiative as well as action. As such, growing these skills and gaining this knowledge is a central task within phase one of healing.

The final component of developing safety within one’s environment is rooted in having a social network that is both safe and supportive. A safe social support network means that one has a group of individuals who can and will provide protection, emotional support, or practical help when life’s adversities arise. The creation of such a network depends on learning how to create and maintain healthy relationships and requires that one remove or distance oneself from any person who is a potential source of danger. This is especially true for survivors of man-made traumas. If one has been traumatized by the behavior of another person, then it is imperative to assess the degree of continuing threat, the potential for re-victimization or revenge, and to develop appropriate precautions and protective measures.

Establishing Internal Safety

As one’s environment becomes increasingly safe, one is able to turn inward and begin developing the skills that will enable one to establish internal safety. Creating safety within oneself includes both physical and emotional safety. Focusing on one’s physical health by tending to any ailments, eating healthy, exercising regularly, and sleeping sufficiently lays the foundation for a balanced internal life. The skills of emotion management build upon this foundation.

If someone is avoiding or reducing emotions through self-harming behaviors such as cutting, burning, or drug/alcohol/food/behavioral addictions, then less damaging behaviors must be developed to systematically replace and terminate the self-harming behaviors. Some individuals attempt to avoid or reduce troubling emotions by over- or under-recognizing their feelings (i.e., exaggerating an emotion so that it will be taken seriously or blocking out all emotion). Therefore, learning how to experience one’s emotions without fleeing or magnifying them becomes a crucial aspect of healing. Just as developing safety within one’s external world requires learning or re-learning a set of skills, so too does managing one’s internal world. Many people find that working with an experienced mental health provider is both beneficial and necessary when learning how to be safe in one’s body and environment.

The Signs of Progress

Due to the fact that a sense of safety is intertwined with issues of trust—trusting others and oneself—the growth through this first phase is often gradual and can have a halting, stop-and-go quality. The survivor will know that he or she has grown through this first phase when:

  1. She or he no longer feels utterly vulnerable.
  2. She or he has a degree of confidence in self-protective abilities.
  3. She or he is able to manage emotional reactions to both life events and trauma triggers in a healthy, non-damaging way.
  4. She or he knows whom to count on for safety and support.

Even though it may take a while to accomplish the tasks of this phase, people do exit this phase and lead healthier, more balanced, and happier lives. If one engages in the healing journey, one will find that this journey has its hard parts as well as refreshing moments. Most importantly, they will learn that it is doable. Healing is possible.

© Copyright 2009 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Rifiel

    November 11th, 2009 at 3:06 AM

    It is not an easy task to just integrate into the real world for a person just out of such a traumatic situation…it takes a lot of time and if there is emotional support, that would be the best possible help for a person.

  • Maggie

    November 11th, 2009 at 7:56 AM

    When you experience any kind of trauma it makes such an imprint that it can be very difficult to overcome without therapy and time. Some think that these are emotions and feelings that they can deal with on their own, but they have no realization just how deeply these kinds of things can stand to effect them even years after the trauma occurs. When in doubt the best idea is to always find someone that you can talk with and who can help you work through things. It might just even be a good friend or even your minister but there is nothing wrong with seeking help to work through these things and that is guaranteed to leave you healthier in the long run.

  • finlay

    November 11th, 2009 at 11:01 AM

    Its not like we can just hit the delete key and we forget things… everything that we go through in life is extremely difficult to forget and it is all the more difficult if the event has had a major effect on our lives…

  • John Lee LMHC

    November 11th, 2009 at 2:47 PM

    Before I reached out for help, I could have been in the safest place in the world! I did not understand what this stuff in my head was about or why I was so afraid. I new one thing Alcohol made it seem better!

    Today there are answers! Unfortunatly, there is still a lot of resistance and stigma in getting help! Becomming willing to get help is really the first step.

  • Sharon Johnson

    November 15th, 2009 at 1:09 AM

    Establishing safety can be problematic in impoverished situations. I work in a schools context where there sometimes is just no safe place for a child to go. Creating that inner safe space, regardless of circumstances, is a key to recovery.

  • Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    December 4th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

    I agree with your thoughts Sharon. Inner safety is such a cornerstone to healing and can be so hard to achieve when the external world is one of perpetual danger.

  • sandy

    November 6th, 2013 at 7:02 PM

    nobody gets how I feel and y I cant hust overcome it
    they dont understand that I need a constant safe someone to help me out of this horrible mess and to help me rehabilitate myself
    I simply cannot do it on my own I simply cant

  • Tammera

    November 7th, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    Therapy and Time

  • Lost

    July 3rd, 2014 at 8:28 PM

    A lot of this makes sense but the thing I’m stuck on is the time part. my hole life other than the past year lived lived in basically hell. I felt with a constant parade of bully’s and torment , I felt strangled by it. all all my teachers thought i was out of my mind, Them and my parents had me tested for every mental problem in the books. The other students at my school called me “crazy Kate” .i had no friends because I was horribly afraid of people and the kids thought I was weird and out of my mind.i know that thay were little and did not mean it but I can never forgive them.the worst of the pain came in fifth grade with a bully named d for short. He had anger issues and I guess that he thought that maid it ok to take it out on me?he wold hit me every day whenever he could . He sat next to me on the bus and wold hit me in the side with his violin case. At lunch he wold flick grapes at my back with a spork. The names he called me are unrepeatable. Once I was walking to the bus and he put his hand on my boob i ran away but had to sit next to him on the school bus on the way home. I wold have killed my self but I felt like I was worth less than that.
    90 something percent of my life has been hell. I’m only 14 I have my hole life ahed how much time till I forget all of these memory’s ?

  • laurie

    January 23rd, 2015 at 4:56 PM

    Hi this may help sit comfortablely and close your eyes let any emotion surface then. Pretend you have a ball of putty in your hands and stretch the putty till it snaps.

    After bring the names and images of the event as much as you can into your mind as the pictures are there rub them then allow yourself to feel a good emotion anything will do could even watch a scene from a film that gives you that good feeling and picturing you stamping that nice warm feeling in its place.
    Also don’t feel like your alone life is full of opportunity you just need to find what you enjo, be around caring loving people who respect you for you it is understandable you are feeling this way so give yourself timemail and space to process all the feelings

  • lee

    May 14th, 2017 at 1:32 AM

    hey lost , by the sounds of it your going through a lot of rough stuff but please know that what these people say and what they do is not a reflection anyway of you , sometimes when you hear it all the time you feel like its your fault and theres something wrong with you and then you actually internalise what they say and believe it when its not actually true. its FALSE . in no way is it okay to get bullied or to bully others either. your 14 and your going to go out and do well, at least you get to learn early that sometimes people bully others because they are insecure within themselves or they get bullied or abused themselves by family or other friends. when you think about it its quite sad for them to do that but that doesnt make it okay either to attack you . you don’t deserve that at all . It can be scary and daunting to stand up too yourself but I encourage it (I’m working on it aswell), don’t let anyone tell you that who you are is not good enough because thats bullc#$p because your unique in your own way. don’t let them get you down because in the long run there going to be the ones who are going to have to come to terms with there behaviour and who they are . you just keep doing you and don give a f*($k what they think . it helps to accept yourself unconditionally for who you are that will give you the core strength to not care what other people think . wish all the best :) stay true to you :)

  • Susanne Dillmann

    Susanne Dillmann

    July 18th, 2014 at 1:01 PM

    Hello Lost,

    I just wanted to reach out and let you know that your life is definitely worth more than all of the nasty and cruel words you hear. Your life is infinitely precious.

    I encourage you to talk to your school counselor and parents about finding you a therapist so that you can work with someone on all the mistreatment you are experiencing. We all need help sometimes and now is your time to receive compassion, support, wisdom and help from someone.

    All the very best to you, Susanne

  • Sharon

    April 25th, 2015 at 7:06 AM

    I have been married for 29 years. In 2012 my husband and I were having marital issues. He chose to have a 3 month affair with our notary. Wining, dining….. After three months we made a decision to fix our marriage. I cannot seem to get her out of my head. I try. I really try but I cannot get her out.

  • Neil

    July 23rd, 2015 at 1:41 PM

    I can’t move or make decisions, its been six months and I’m broke, depressed, immobile. Cptsd, shock of brother dying, abandoned by family, alone.

  • Danielle

    February 15th, 2017 at 8:04 AM

    I am a survivor of a traumatic event. I was a witness in a homicide n then kidnapped n held hostage for 4 days n raped. Every horrible thing I can imAgine happen to a woman …i went thru in those 4 days. I escaped by running for my life n breaking in to a strangers house n begging them for help. I survived all that. Today I am in my healing journey n I owe it all too the 360 class w all DBT skills. The core of it is mindefullness. That class changed my life. My perspective…things I could never see beforr…i realized n gained wisdom…control of my mind n surrendering to the present moment. I felt spirituality for the first time. It’s a beautiful n amazing feeling when I unlock ur soul from the imprisonment of oneself ego. Love is an amazing thang….i love this info I read today at this website n healing is very possibe.

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