3 Steps to Healing Trauma that Everyone Should Know

Sad woman sit on stairsMost people have had a traumatic experience of some kind. While many of us learn to cope and be resilient in the face of trauma, others may become overwhelmed.

Trauma is an overwhelming experience, and it is our experience and reaction, more than the event itself, that defines trauma. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for posttraumatic stress (PTSD) are specific and involve being exposed to something that threatens life; however, different people have a range of responses to similar situations. What may feel mundane to you could be traumatic to me, and vice versa. No judgment here—we are all wired differently.

Below are three simple steps that can help anyone facing an overwhelming life experience—be it a natural disaster, loss of a loved one, an experience of violence, or an abusive past.

Once we’ve encountered a trauma, how do we get through it?

  1. Seek safety. The first step in addressing trauma is to create safety, on multiple levels. Physically, find a place to ground yourself and feel protected from harm. Then look for ways to actively nurture yourself. Think of a bird flying along and running into a glass window. What does that bird need—perhaps a little shoebox with some water and food, and loving hands and eyes to watch over it? On an emotional level, seek out those people in your life who can tend to you as you would that bird, who offer love, support, caring, and understanding. If you have a network of friends and family, call on them. There are also people and organizations out there to help, serve, and support you. Also, seek support on a spiritual level. Connecting with a higher power or deeper intelligence that resonates with you can be a saving grace. Many gravitate toward nature. Find what soothes your soul.
  2. Process. Once you feel more grounded, contained, and safe (and you feel READY for this step), you can begin to process the parts of the experience that are still with you. Look to your body and find the movement that helps you get in touch with yourself and your feelings. Find a good therapist or group in which you can talk openly and honestly. As you process, you’ll continue to develop coping skills and strengths and build upon the safety and containment you’ve created.
  3. Examine. When the bulk of your processing is over, life goes on. The goal is not to forget the traumatic experience but to resolve the emotional charge it holds in the present. Look at any learning or growth that has come from this experience. What insights have you gained? Make a note to yourself of any positive things you have learned that you can carry forward.

When we process one life event thoroughly, we may discover more there—other experiences or things we have learned about ourselves that deserve attention and healing. By now, hopefully, you have good relationships and supports you can lean on to continue your healing journey mindfully, with compassion for yourself and with the knowledge that efforts put toward healing will be helpful for you.

Disclaimer: It is never this neat. These steps will weave in and out of each other. Trauma, like life, can be chaotic, and healing is an art more than it is a science. Following your intuition and building a network of support will help. There is a way through; use these steps to guide you through your healing process.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, EdM, LMFT, E-RYT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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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  • cindy t

    September 24th, 2014 at 2:01 PM

    You don’t need to bury in the sand and determine that the best way to end the trauma is to try to forget about it; instead the best thing that you can do is to confront this head on and deal with it. It won’t be easy but it will be soooo much better for you for the future.

  • Switch

    April 29th, 2018 at 9:10 AM

    I agree.

  • Lisa

    September 24th, 2014 at 4:05 PM

    Yes, Cindy, better to deal than to bury or avoid, in general. Sometimes our psyches will store things away until it is safe enough to process them, so building up a felt sense of physical and emotional safety can help prepare us to process.

  • Geoffrey

    September 25th, 2014 at 11:41 AM

    The hardest thing to understand for most of us is that this is actually going to take some time to get through. This is not a process that has a definitive end and beginning, this is one that you may waffle back and forth a few times before you feel like you have really worked through it all and have come to a point where you can actually see that progress is being made. I know that this is quite frustrating, I have been through it myself. Just when you think that you have one thing licked then boom! here comes something else which can knock you back a few steps. I think that people need to realize that this is normal for everyone and that there is no such thing as 1 2 3 then you are done. It will come, it will happen, but it does take time and it takes perseverance.

  • DAWN

    October 5th, 2016 at 9:04 AM

    Geoffrey, you are so right about healing and how it seems to be one step ahead and two steps back most times. So hard to stay positive through it all, such a long hard journey to recover from trauma of any kind. A person truly finds out who their friends are, and sad to say that sometimes our family isn’t there for the support we need.

  • courtney

    September 26th, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    I just don’t want to deal with what has happened to me if it is something like this. It feels like this would only make things worse to constantly have to think about it

  • sonja

    July 10th, 2017 at 8:08 AM

    Courtney , It might seem like avoiding your trauma is the right thing to do . any messages that you got for your bad situation, gets stronger and runs your life. If you learned at that time that speaking up for yourself was dangerous, then as an adult you wont speak up for yourself .You are running on a track that you don’t even know is there, because you have given over control of your life to the trauma. Challenging that voice that says you are worthless is very very hard , but the first step in doing so , is to pay attention to what you are being told. I could say so much more . Hope this helps.

  • Zara

    September 29th, 2014 at 3:20 PM

    Not only do you have to find that safe place but you need to have that safe person in your life who allows you to both hurt and to heal. That person can be a little tricky to find but once you do, don’t let them get aawy. This could be your forever hand holder through the roughest of times, and that can be someone pretty darn special. If it is the right person, they will find you and they will always be there for you. I think that this kidn of person is something that everyone who has been through a traumatic experience will find that they need.

  • James

    September 30th, 2014 at 10:00 PM

    I have PTSD and need to recover. My memory b4 My trauma and lose the traumatic memories stuck in My mind. can anyone help. Ty

  • GoodTherapyAdmin

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:33 AM

    Thank you for your comment, James. If you would like to consult with mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, https://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. From this list you can click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. You are also welcome to call us for assistance finding a therapist. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time; our phone number is 888-563-2112 ext. 1.

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Lisa

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:15 AM

    Geoffrey, thank you for your comments. Indeed it takes time and the process is never as linear as a textbook or theory would like it to be. I agree that it is crucial to know that this is normal and that progress is happening, even when a few steps forward come with a step or two back.

  • Lisa

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    Courtney, thanks for you comment. It sounds like building safety and having a support person would be helpful right now, especially if you you’re having thoughts come into your mind when you don’t want them to. For many people who have experienced trauma it takes time for the psyche to be ready to revisit the unpleasant memories, and that is okay. Building safe people and places around you will help start the healing process.

  • Lisa

    October 1st, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    Zara, great point! Having a therapist, or any supportive person you connect with is hugely helpful. It’s great to find one and there can even be more. It is wise to build a network of support to bolster you through current and potential future hard times.

  • Lisa

    October 1st, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    Just wanted to add, James, that sometimes reaching out to a therapist can feel like a big step (for many it is a bit overwhelming!). I’d suggest searching here and finding someone near you with experience helping people recover from trauma. Many therapists offer a free initial phone consultation, so you can ask about that. Wishing you the very best, Lisa

  • Bonnie R

    April 24th, 2015 at 8:16 AM

    It’s a long bumpy journey… The path is definitely worth it but scary to let go. The 3 steps are what I did and it was not easy. It’s never over but it gets better if you want it and can believe. I’m not a professional, I am a recovering patient of a professional.

  • Gloria

    April 25th, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    I survived a thirty year marriage to a narcissist / psychopath.I have been free of my baggage now for 27 months.There are days when I feel that his lies about me being nothing are true.Then are days when I am so happy that I dance most of the day ! I have found two therapist that have helped me and time has been a healer in itself.I was in shock for six months and confused as to what actually happened to me.The ex abused me in every way except physically and my body tried to destroy itself through the years.He was sneaky and deceptive and if I ever questioned him he would blow up at me..my advice is talk about it and get counseling, write about it and pray about it.Try to get as much support as possible.The hardest part for me was the legal parts as the ex would not cooperate and I didn’t have any money.I had to barrow from family members to hire a lawyer.The ex didn’t want me to have anything I had worked for all those years.They don’t do to well taking back to a judge.They don’t want to go to jail.

  • David

    May 15th, 2016 at 3:05 PM

    Read Peter Levine’s book “in An unspoken Voice” to find an account of him being hit by a car and what helped him after this trauma. Peter if one of the best known of working on trauma with Somatic Experiencing, and all of his books are helpful in this area

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