Phases of Trauma Healing: Part II, the Deep End of the Pool

This article is part II of a three-part series. Part I introduced the first phase of healing, the safety phase.

Woman looking sad mourningAs you pass out of the first phase of healing, you may feel as though you have a new lease on life and want to step out of your healing journey.

While you have more than every right to do this, the first phase is ultimately not sufficient to bring whole and complete healing. The real and perceived safety that you established within the first phase of healing—within yourself, with the people in your life, and in your physical environment—becomes the foundation that allows you to grow into the second phase of healing. In this second phase of healing, the actual traumatic experience is grappled with through remembering and mourning.

Integrating Traumatic Events into Your Personal History

Remembering allows you to address your trauma story by placing the event, or events, into your life history. This is giving your memories temporal dimensions. Due to the physiological processes that are “online” during a traumatic experience, the subsequent memories can seem to float outside of time and space rather than being rooted in the timeline of your life. To truly heal and integrate the reality of your traumatic event, the experience needs to settle into your life history.

To achieve this, a therapist can work with you to review your life before the traumatic event, the circumstances that led up to the trauma, and life after the trauma. Such a life review includes looking at others’ reactions, as well as acknowledging and healing from secondary wounding experiences.

By engaging in this emotional work, you transform the traumatic event from something that was done to you into something that is a part of your life experience. Rooting the traumatic event into your collective life history enables you to reclaim yourself—not the trauma—as the main character in your life, and allows your personal meaning of the trauma to come to the surface.

Reconstructing Trauma Memories

Once the experience of trauma is rooted as a part of your life experience—as an event that has a sense of time and space—the next step is to reconstruct the traumatic event. This is not memory recovery work: no memory is created where there is none. Instead, your therapist will work with whatever memory you have, regardless of length or detail. The purpose is to transform the trauma memory from a frozen moment of terror into a memory that reveals your feelings about and interpretation of the event.

This work is done one small piece at a time, with the guidance, support, and assistance of a competent professional. Despite the therapist being “the expert,” you, the survivor, have the final say about the pace of this work. The end result for most survivors is that their trauma story is no longer one of humiliation and shame, but rather one of virtue and dignity.

Remembering the traumatic event or events and connecting them to words and emotions enables you to mourn what you have lost. While trauma may or may not result in physical loss, it always results in psychological losses. Emotionally connecting with your losses is a courageous act. It can feel scary or even terrifying, because this acknowledgment can confirm the finality of the losses.

Moving Beyond the Second Phase

For many, the work of remembering, mourning, and grieving feels endless, regardless of the actual amount of time this phase encompasses.  Keep in mind that there is no set time limit to this phase. Every survivor spends a different amount of time in this second phase of healing, but it cannot be skipped nor rushed.

Survivors will know that they are nearing the end of the second phase of healing when, as Dr. Judith Herman states, “It occurs to the survivor that perhaps the trauma is not the most important, or even the most interesting, part of her life story…when the patient 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.”

© Copyright 2010 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.

  • 4 comments
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  • Richard

    Richard

    November 8th, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    It is very important that while recalling the traumatic event,the process is done with utmost care and precision because it can even end up making the person break down or start to feel vulnerable again.This exact thing has happened to me in the past in therapy and I am thankful that my therapist was learned enough to actually take care of all this.

  • Kyle

    Kyle

    November 9th, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    When something so sad happens in life many of us want to bury the experience. But we have to remember that the mourning is just as important as it will allow us to break through with our feelings, acknowledge them, and then have the ability to move forward.

  • Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    Susanne M. Dillmann, Psy.D.

    December 4th, 2010 at 12:45 PM

    Thank you Kyle and Richard for your sharing your thoughts. I agree with both your comments and thank you for posting them.

  • Sam

    Sam

    August 8th, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    “her”? Men can experience trauma too.

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