Phases of Trauma Healing: Part I, Establishing SafetyOctober 7, 2010 • By Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, Posttraumatic Stress/Trauma Topic Expert Contributor
Experiencing a traumatic life event is horrific and terrifying, but this experience does not have to become your defining moment.
It is possible to grow through a traumatic event, or series of events, and there are loosely-structured phases of healing for that growth to follow. For a moment, stop and reflect on what it means for experts to have identified these patterns of healing: it means that you are not alone in having experienced trauma, and you are not alone on the healing journey.
The healing journey follows three loosely linear stages or phases. The rate of growth through each of the phases, as well as the details of what that growth looks like, will be unique to you. You will develop your own unique pattern of healing, which means that you will enter, exit, and revisit phases at various times in your life.
Always keep in mind that revisiting is not backwards movement. It is like the outer layers of a spiral: you pass by the same issues, but are in a different, deeper state of healing. As you near the end of your healing journey, you will be able to look back and notice an overarching progressive nature to your growth and healing.
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Understanding the Safety Phase
As you begin the first phase of healing, safety is both your main concern and the hardest task to achieve. Establishing safety—both within yourself and within your environment—can take days, weeks, or even years. The length of time required to develop genuine safety depends on your unique attributes, such as past life experiences, personality, and pretrauma baseline. The length of this phase also depends on how chronic the trauma. In general, the longer you were exposed to the trauma, the longer it will take to develop a sense of safety.
This is not an easy stage. Establishing safety requires a lot of hard work and may require that you, the survivor, dramatically change your life or lifestyle. While this is a difficult part of the healing journey, absolutely no survivor can skip this stage.
In order to truly have safety, you must establish safety within yourself. Focusing on your physical health lays the foundation for internal safety. Establishing internal safety requires you to tend to any ailments, as well as to eat healthy foods, exercise regularly, and sleep sufficiently. Self-harming behaviors preclude genuine safety, so cutting, burning, or addictions to drugs, alcohol, food, or sex, must be grown through and terminated.
Many self-harming behaviors are efforts at managing emotions or thoughts. Learning how to manage your thoughts and emotional world, including your trauma reactions (especially hyperarousal and intrusive reactions), is fundamental to being safe within yourself. Many people find it difficult to engage in this healing without the assistance, support, and guidance of a trained professional. Do not feel ashamed or hesitant to reach out for help.
Safety in the World
Safety within oneself is only half of the equation. No one can be fully safe unless the environment they live and interact in is also safe. Creating safety within your environment requires safety within your physical and relational spheres.
- Attaining a safe physical space includes your ability to move physically in society with a sense of safety and security. It may help to work on your ability to identify dangerous situations or individuals and, to the best of your ability, to get out of a dangerous situation if at all possible. Consider developing safety plans or learning self defense.
- Assess the physical and emotional safety of your social support network. It may be necessary to remove people from your life who are a potential source of physical or emotional danger, or to increase the number of people who can and do provide emotional support, protection, or practical help.
- For those who experienced trauma at the hands of other people, assess the degree of continuing threat and the potential for re-victimization or revenge, and develop appropriate precautions. Ensuring your safety is not 100% within your authority, since to live means to be vulnerable. But that does not mean it is 0% within your authority either.
Moving Through the First Phase
This phase of growth is gradual. It can have a sometimes halting stop-and-go pattern, and it can take a long time. However, if you continue to work on developing safety, and allow trustworthy others to help you, you will be able to grow through this phase.
Some indicators that you have grown through this phase include no longer feeling utterly vulnerable; having a degree of confidence in your ability to protect yourself physically and emotionally; knowing who to count on for safety and support, and being able to effectively manage most of your trauma reactions, including emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
If learning about the tasks involved in this first phase of healing feels daunting, don’t give up. Reach out to a trained therapist and harness their skills and abilities in order to engage in this healing work. You have a right to reclaim the quality of life you deserve.
If this first phase of healing sounds like a review of work you have already completed, take a deep breath of congratulations and gratitude. You are on your way to continued and ever-deeper healing and growth.
© Copyright 2010 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, CA. All Rights Reserved.
Leo PaulOctober 7th, 2010 at 11:39 AM
Wow,Quite a read that! :)
Yes,It can be very difficult for a person who has gone through something big to believe all is well and to think that he is safe as before.But according to me,the people around the person have a huge role to play in this process and it is their support,Or lack of it thereof,That can make or break the healing and recovery process.
Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.December 4th, 2010 at 12:48 PM
Hello Leo – Thanks for highlighting the importance of a support network. Sometimes people within the support network do not understand what a powerful role they play in someone’s healing and your comment does a nice job pointing this out.
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