This 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:
- She or he no longer feels utterly vulnerable.
- She or he has a degree of confidence in self-protective abilities.
- She or he is able to manage emotional reactions to both life events and trauma triggers in a healthy, non-damaging way.
- 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. 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.