3 Ways Positive Relationships Can Support Trauma Recovery

Beautiful seniors in natureIn recent years, health care researchers in the West have looked to medicine and technology for fast solutions to mental health issues. Interestingly, researchers in interpersonal psychology have also found increasing evidence that links mental health to our fundamental need to connect with one another and be part of a healthy community. The developing field of interpersonal neurobiology studies the connections between emotions, relationships, and health in a way that teaches us the immense value of human connection in scientific terms.

In trauma recovery, it is important to remember our basic needs for human contact, belonging, and social support. We are social beings, and the process of trauma recovery happens largely in relationship.

Here are three key ways relationships can help us overcome traumatic experiences:

1. Safety

Trauma often involves a violation of our physical or emotional sense of safety. Those who have a sense of safety in community will benefit from reconnecting with family, friends, and communities who can help them find healthy ways to soothe the mental and emotional imprints of posttraumatic stress.

For those who didn’t have a supportive network of relationships prior to the trauma, it can be particularly challenging to build safety and trust in new relationships following the traumatic experience. In this case, relationship building becomes a key piece of trauma recovery.

While this may be daunting, it is an effort worthy of the trauma survivor’s attention. Building trust with a friend or therapist may bring up feelings of vulnerability, but with this vulnerability comes an immense capacity for healing. One of the most beneficial things for someone seeking to recover from trauma is to build a trusting, healthy connection with another human being—someone he or she can share thoughts and feelings with and process the feelings and thoughts related to traumatic experiences.

2. Attachment

You may have heard of attachment theory in psychotherapy. Attachment speaks to your experience of connection with parents, and how these early relationships impacted your feelings of connection to others. Were your caregivers engaged with you? Did they meet your needs? Attachment theory outlines four primary types of attachment, the healthiest being called secure attachment.

Search for those who help you feel seen, safe, soothed, secure, and stable, and cultivate those feelings in your environment and in relationship to yourself.

There are ways therapy can help if you feel you had challenges with attachment in your early relationships. There is also an immense amount we can learn from healthy attachment. Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist at UCLA, outlines four primary needs of children that help foster secure attachment and healthy brain development. He describes these as the “four S’s,” which are helping a child feel:

  • Seen: Feeling an empathic, deep connection
  • Safe: Avoiding actions that are frightening or scary
  • Soothed: Helping to calm when disturbed
  • Secure: Helping to develop an internal sense of well-being

I would add an additional “S” for stable: creating a sense of predictability, order, and right in the household. Encouraging these experiences is helpful for all people, but particularly for the trauma survivor, who may feel alienation, shame, or isolation as a result of his or her experience with trauma. These themes provide opportunities to experience positive connection and emotions and prevent negative feelings from taking root or overtaking the experience of a trauma survivor.

3. Physiology

In the field of trauma treatment and recovery, interpersonal biology plays a significant role in recovery. Interpersonal neurobiology brings together research and theories in an interdisciplinary manner to explore the impact of relationships on neurological functioning. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire when we see or are connected with someone who experiences an event that we do not experience. They help us create a sense of connection and shared experience. This can be part of what helps us feel seen and that our experience, positive or negative, is being shared with those we care about (or care about us).

Related studies of psychoneuroimmunology go deeper to explore the relationship between psychology, neuroscience, and immune system function. Much of what we learn in these overlapping fields is the effect of social and emotional stress on the body and its ability to fight off infection. When we can soothe stress and feel supported by family, friends, and/or community in efforts to meet the challenge of a problem or respond to a crisis, our bodies are able to self-regulate better and access not only a felt sense of resilience but biological indicators of health.

Recommendations

If you are experiencing trauma and are feeling alone, do not give up efforts to foster connection with others. Search for those who help you feel seen, safe, soothed, secure, and stable, and cultivate those feelings in your environment and in relationship to yourself. While reaching out may seem difficult, there are significant opportunities for healing in connecting with those who care. Make seeking social support a conscious part of your healing journey, a journey best taken with the guidance of a therapist, and discover how this information can serve you best.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, MEd, LMFT, E-RYT, therapist in Oakland, California

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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  • ronald

    ronald

    July 23rd, 2015 at 8:04 AM

    You know that comforted feeling that you get when someone you love grabs your hand and tells you that they love you?
    I think that recovering form a traumatic event in life, you need a whole lot of that, a lot of someone grabbing your hand and telling you just how much they care about you and support you.

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    July 23rd, 2015 at 9:10 AM

    So well said, Ronald. I completely agree!

  • Louisa

    Louisa

    July 23rd, 2015 at 4:10 PM

    This could be a time when group therapy could come in handy, help you make those connections with others who are feeling the same things that you are and who can understand those feelings in a way that others may not.

  • Bethany

    Bethany

    July 24th, 2015 at 3:23 AM

    What is prognosis without this? If it isn’t a possibility and isolation will remain?

  • Sienna

    Sienna

    July 24th, 2015 at 7:46 AM

    For many they take something like this and use it as an excuse to hide out from the world. It feels too hard for them to make or have connections with other people, because this feels threatening in and of itself. This is not the time to withdraw though, because you may need to solicit help from others to get you through this.

  • G

    G

    July 24th, 2015 at 9:57 AM

    …. I would add ‘a lot of someone grabbing your hand and SHOWING you just how much they care about you and support you’

  • Bethany

    Bethany

    July 24th, 2015 at 8:15 PM

    Could you do a follow up for those who will not have a hand to hold or care from others? Specifically, if in a situation where there is no way to change that you will be alone, what do you do and how do you survive?

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    July 24th, 2015 at 11:10 PM

    Yes group therapy can also be helpful and it is wonderful when people can show their support. To answer your question, Bethany, for most people isolation (with or without challenges like trauma) creates an experience of stress. While being alone can be soothing, feeling like no one can or will help you in times of need is stressful. If you or someone you care about is isolated in this way I would encourage finding them some support, whether through a therapist, a group, or a community. It is very helpful for people to feel like they have someone they can turn to when they are in need.

  • Bethany

    Bethany

    July 25th, 2015 at 12:52 PM

    Yes, a good thing to do – as long as you’re lucky enough to not have community be the trigger.

  • Reed

    Reed

    July 25th, 2015 at 7:17 AM

    The shared experiences are the key.

    No one should have to go through this alone. Have someone by your side who can help to share in some of this pain, give you comfort when it feels like there is none to be had.

  • Bethany

    Bethany

    July 25th, 2015 at 12:50 PM

    Some people don’t (or won’t) have people who care or are willing and able to share that pain or provide love and support. Therapy isn’t a relationship that lasts, so even if you get that sense of support and care for a time, you have to let that go, eventually invalidating that experience and heightening the awareness that care is not there. Group therapy isn’t available everywhere.The bottom line ia that people need to be set up to handle trauma before it happens to them.

  • Cane

    Cane

    July 26th, 2015 at 4:29 PM

    I am sure that most people who have been through some sort of traumatic event would hope that they have this supportive network of friends and family to rely on, but we all know that for some of us that isn’t in the cards. So you may have to go outside of your comfort zone a little bit and seek those things out because in the end even though this feels hard you will be grateful to have people who care about you in your life.

  • Timothy

    Timothy

    July 27th, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    Everyone wants to be needed and be loved. Recovery is all about reaffirming that need as well as reestablishing those lost connections that we have broken in the past but now need again to heal that which has been damaged.

  • Tanner

    Tanner

    July 28th, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    Having someone that you can be yourself with can always be great in terms of being a positive life changer. There are those times throughout this path that you are going to need that person that you can turn to through good times and bad, so if you have this person and they are committee to helping you through the recovery and healing time that this takes, then I would suggest that you keep them very close to you right now.

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