Healing from Trauma, Part II: Now that I’m Safe, What Do I Do?

A sad older man stands in front of a dress full of family pictures.This article is the second installment of a three-part series. The first article of this series is Healing from Trauma: Why Can’t I Just Forget About It?

After establishing physical and emotional safety, it is possible to begin remembering and mourning a traumatic event. In other words, it becomes feasible to address the trauma story.

Remembering the trauma begins by placing the event into your life history. The event is no longer pushed under the proverbial rug or thought of as your defining life experience. Rather, the traumatic event is given a time and place in your life. It is important to review your life before the traumatic event, analyze and understand the circumstances that led up to the traumatic event, and look at your life after the event. Recalling the reactions of significant others, including those reactions and experiences that were wounding or even re-traumatizing is also necessary. These secondary wounding experiences are acknowledged, grieved over, and worked through. Doing this work allows your personal meaning of the trauma to come to the surface.

After creating this narrative timeline, or sketch of your life, the next step is to reconstruct the traumatic event: transform the trauma memory from a frozen moment of terror to a memory that has words, a sense of time, and reveals your feelings and interpretations of the event. Reconstructing the event uses any and all memory, no matter how fragmented, detailed, or seemingly random they are. As the survivor, you work with whatever memory you have.

This work is done one small piece at a time. It is critical that the pace of this work does not lead to feeling disempowered or spiraling downward. A competent trauma therapist will work with you to determine the best pace and allow you to have a say. The end result for most survivors is that their trauma story is no longer one of humiliation and shame. Rather, it is one of virtue and dignity.

Once the traumatic event is remembered and the memory is connected to words, a sense of time and emotions—that which was lost—must be mourned. Trauma may or may not result in physical losses, but it always results in psychological losses. Emotionally connecting to your losses is a courageous act and is fundamental to the mourning process. The act of connecting to your emotions feels scary. Part of this fear arises because acknowledging what was lost confirms the loss and requires you to claim the new you. This work can feel endless, but this phase of healing cannot be skipped, nor can it be rushed.

The amount of time spent in this phase is different for every individual. Psychiatrist Judith Herman writes that survivors will know that they are nearing the end when “it occurs to the survivor that perhaps the trauma is not the most important, or even the most interesting, part of her life story… [she] reclaims her own history and feels renewed hope and energy for engagement with life. Time starts to move again. . . The traumatic experience truly belongs to the past. At this point, the survivor faces the tasks of rebuilding her life in the present and pursuing her aspirations for the future.”

This emotional work should not be done without the guidance of a trained professional who can help you through your healing. As with all of my articles, the information in this article is intended to educate and is not meant as a substitution for individual therapy.

References:
Herman, Judith Lewis. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse to political terror. Jackson, TN: Basic Books.

© 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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  • lin

    lin

    December 8th, 2009 at 6:23 PM

    When do you surrender the ridiculous ideas you generated to explain it all? Do we not begin with meaning and the process is remaking it? I cannot imagine it not being the defining moment of my life or learning to mark time in a way that is associated with before and after. Yet I work at it still…after all these years. Thanks for the post…I am always eager to learn.

  • therapydoc

    therapydoc

    December 9th, 2009 at 3:16 AM

    Good post on a topic dear to my heart. Thanks.

  • DOROTHY

    DOROTHY

    December 9th, 2009 at 11:21 AM

    It seems like an easy task to get over an event for any person, but for the one that actually underwent the trauma, it is nothing short of an uphill task… People who are going through trauma require all the care and affection and this should continue to flow to them even after they recover… only then will the recovery be complete and a slipping back into the trauma can be averted.

  • oscar.f

    oscar.f

    December 9th, 2009 at 3:54 PM

    A person who has just overcome a traumatic situation is extremely vulnerable in my opinion. This, I think, is because he/she has spend a considerable amount of energy in tiding over the problem and even if a small new problem or situation crops up, it is going to be extremely difficult for the person to cope with it.

  • John Lee LMHC

    John Lee LMHC

    December 10th, 2009 at 1:24 PM

    I am very cautious in the treatment of PTSD. I have seen many who have gone to therapists who do not specialize in PTSD and who were encouraged to detail the trauma and had very negative consequences. I know one case that the re experience actually precipitated a dissociation! I know of others who committed suicide!

    The effects of Trauma are related to a person’s flight fight response. If a person is terrified of going to the event, teach the person how to cope and handle the symptoms.

    I have also seen people who never want to see a therapist again due to a well intentioned therapist probing into a truamatic event before a person is ready.

    Treatment and Recovering from PTSD is like chipping at a brick wall that is protecting the memory. It is also like peeling an onion.

    PTSD Treatment and Recovery takes time and the first step is building a strong, trusting relationship with the therapist! One of the best treatments I have found in treating PTSD over the last 20 years is using guided imagery, hypnosis, and teaching people how to reduce hypervigilence and hyperarrousal.

    I am sensitive to this subject as I am not only a psychotherapist I am also a PTSD sexual assault survivor.

    The intent of my comment is not meant to have any negative
    impact on the writer. The intent is simply to be cautious in guiding a person through this frightening journey

    John Lee LMHC

  • Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    December 4th, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    I echo John’s point that working with a trauma specialist is incredibly important as the pacing of trauma work is of utmost significance.

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