Stages of Trauma Recovery: What It Means to Be a ‘Survivor’

Woman stretchingI was recently reading a blog post and noticed that someone in the comment section asked the question: “What does it mean when we refer to someone as a survivor?” We hear about “survivors” of domestic violence and “survivors” of sexual assault all the time, but what does it mean when we refer to people in this way? I thought this was a good question to explore.

The description provided by the National Crime Victim Law Institute states a survivor is “a person who endures adversity, moves through it, and perseveres, or a person with resiliency who remains undefeated.” I like that definition. Below, I describe how this definition applies to the four stages that trauma survivors might experience as they heal.

Stage 1: Silence

People who experience adverse situations, such as a traumatic event involving actual or threatened danger, face incredible challenges. The initial stage following a traumatic event is often a time of silence for the victim. It’s common for recently victimized people to refuse to talk about what happened. This may be due to a number of things, including stigma, isolation, shame, guilt, confusion, or denial about the event.

A person emerging from trauma may have low self-esteem at first and may feel overwhelmed and disconnected from the rest of the world.

Stage 2: Victimhood

Eventually, the traumatized self may start to long for change as the ongoing suffering interferes with daily life tasks and a need to grow and recover begins to form. As this need grows, it allows the person to begin exploring ways to move through the trauma. According to available research, there is often a tug-of-war taking place within the individual between a need to be safe and protect emotions and a need to grow and confront the traumatic memories.

The person may feel compelled to talk openly with everyone about what happened and the suffering he or she experienced. Some people will likely be more willing than others to listen. For people working their way through the stage of victimization, having someone to listen and support them as they process the event can be critical to their ability to move forward into survivorhood. Many people find support groups helpful during this stage and may seek counseling or other support.

Stage 3: Survivorhood

Once a person processes the traumatic event and continues transitioning away from the victim experience, he or she often begins identifying as a survivor. During this stage, a person has had an opportunity to talk about his or her experience and has gained some sense of clarity. He or she may begin to identify the ways in which he/she persevered and the strengths that helped make moving forward possible. The person hasn’t forgotten the event, but he or she has a greater understanding about what the event means and the impact it has made on his or her life.

Reaching the stage of survivorhood doesn’t happen overnight. It may take months or even years to work through the victim stage and reach the point where one feels that the wounds are healing and a sense of relief is possible. Also, the process of healing is not linear. Survivors take one step forward and two steps back sometimes, and moving through it all and persevering may coincide with feeling hopeful one day and damaged and wounded the next. People in the survivor stage tend to spend less and less time feeling wounded as they continue learning new tools and recognizing themselves as resilient.

Stage 4: Thriving and Transcendence

Most people I’ve worked with seem content reaching the stage of survivorhood. They feel like they are managing challenges better and have a greater awareness about themselves and their experiences. Other people, The person hasn’t forgotten the event, but he or she has a greater understanding about what the event means and the impact it has made on his or her life.however, have told me they’re not done growing, and some of them have even said they don’t want to be called a survivor.

This group becomes the thriving group, people who transformed their experiences into a meaningful personal narrative and will not be defined by their adversity. They feel healed and safe, and take appropriate risks in seeking connection with others, such as asking a new neighbor out for coffee. They don’t feel the need to tell their stories unless it benefits someone else. “Thrivers” feel motivated to take part in the community and may seek out volunteer opportunities or other ways to help others.

Of course, this is only one model of healing and one definition of what it means to be a survivor. Every person who experiences a distressing event may have his or her own ideas about what it means to pull through a traumatic time or event.

Reference:

Matsakis, A. (2003). The rape recovery handbook: Step-by-step help for survivors of sexual assault. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC, CTTS, therapist in Vancouver, Washington

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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  • E. Kelly, LMFT

    E. Kelly, LMFT

    August 3rd, 2015 at 3:40 PM

    I thank you for this well written and informative article…it is most important in its message.

  • Deb

    Deb

    August 4th, 2015 at 2:19 PM

    Yep. Good article . I didn’t realize there were stages. I wonder if this applies to verbal manipulation and other forms of abuse ? I have trouble seeing myself as abused because it wasn’t physical and he didn’t call me bad names . It was more a complete devaluation of my abilities ( other than my nursing skills)and how I raised my children (his step). I wondered how I was able to function properly without his opinion . It felt like a punch at my soul . 20 years later I got out . Now I have to work on myself. I appreciate this information .

  • Jo

    Jo

    August 5th, 2015 at 1:47 AM

    Hi Deb,
    I too struggled to see myself as abused because he wasn’t physically or verbally violent.
    He diminished my self belief over 19 yrs and told me I was too unstable to have more children after my second.
    I have been left a shell of a person who I am rebuilding slowly. I still have no interests and my self esteem is low but not rock bottom as it was.
    I’ve been lucky and had brilliant support. Keep working on it xxxxx

  • Lamenting in Oregon

    Lamenting in Oregon

    August 4th, 2015 at 6:02 PM

    Such a wonderful article. There are true survivors all around us everyday. If we only knew the toll that violence takes on us and the staggering percentages that are truly affected. God bless all those who support them and are affected.

  • Homagi

    Homagi

    August 5th, 2015 at 2:31 AM

    What a great article. I think its important for people to know there are stages. We live in a culture where technology breds speed and perfection. We edit our imperfections and order pizza, a car to take us into town, and periscope about it all online in real time. All of these things complicate the healing process because many feel they must expedite “healing” so they attempt to skip through the stages, unknowingly of course, further hindering their progress. Having a guideline gives some structure and therefore empowers the survivor in my opinion. This was a great article. Thank you.

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    August 6th, 2015 at 2:39 PM

    Thank you everyone for your kind words both about the article and to each other! I do think the stages apply to individuals who have experienced emotional/verbal abuse in addition to physical, spiritual, financial, and sexual abuse, each of which can be traumatic for the person victimized.

  • marnie

    marnie

    August 9th, 2015 at 7:46 AM

    This is it, you cannot allow yourself to become defined just by this one thing that has happened to you. You have to get beyond that and recognize that you were somebody before this happened and you still are, and that this one piece only makes up a small part of the greater whole.

  • Samantha

    Samantha

    August 9th, 2015 at 3:03 PM

    For certain people there will never be a stage 3 or stage 4 because they get totally bogged down in stages 1 and 2. Now for whatever reason they can never get past the pain or they do not have the support systems in their lives that are necessary for getting to that point, but I think that the ones who stay in those first stages of recovery are the ones who are destined to hurt for a very long time. The ones who make it out of that abyss find themselves in a much better place, strong and happy, with a reason to look to the future with hope instead of only sadness.

  • Eileen

    Eileen

    September 14th, 2015 at 7:50 AM

    Spoken so well! I’m trying sooo hard to jump to stage 3 after almost 4 yrs being stuck in stages,1&2.

    A huge statement, “do not find the support…” Speaks louder than one can imagine. It all can be a long lonely road we find ourselves in.

    Sites like these are so great to have.

  • helen

    helen

    August 10th, 2015 at 8:57 AM

    I’m a year away from my husband.he physically and emotionally abused me.I got out when he raped me.still fighting for strength every day.but I think I’m getting there.

  • Sarah

    Sarah

    August 10th, 2015 at 12:59 PM

    If you get through it in one piece, then by all means, you need to call yourself a survivor and be proud of that!

  • Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    Marjie L. Roddick, MA, LMHC

    September 15th, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    Thank you to the survivors who are commenting on the article and sharing parts of your stories. As your comments show, it definitely takes time to move from one stage to the next. Continue being patient with yourselves and give yourselves credit for the progress you’re making and the work you’re doing to move forward! When people feel “stuck” in the first couple of stages, it may be because those are the stages that feel most familiar to them. Survivors sometimes tell me that if they were to “let go” of the fears, worries, or patterns they’ve held for so long, they’re afraid their world might fall apart. It can be hard to visualize what life might be like if it were different. Venturing into survivorhood involves changes that are new and unpredictable, which can feel scary and be a barrier to moving forward.

  • KG

    KG

    November 3rd, 2015 at 7:16 PM

    Even though it seems obvious that the silent stage is a reaction to a traumatic event, I’m suprised I don’t recall hearing more about it before. Especially as an authentic and defined experience. I would like to know more about this response.

    Personally I have experienced it. It has felt like shock, disorientation, and a total withdrawal of trust and expectation. When it occurred between myself and a person on whom I was dependent (for shelter, love, or work leadership) it felt like my breath was taken away.

    When a painful action is delivered without providing purpose, guidance, direction, or redeeming value the destruction can take a long time to rebuild from. The desire to find meaning is immediate. But sometimes blossoms extremely slowly. And more readily in an environment of safety, protection, and secure attachment.

    Remaking a safe home requires an exceptional amount of carefulness, trial and error attempts, and energy. Also the knowledge and skill of the people you speak to or whose words you read can make a dramatic impact on finding meaning and redirection.

  • Tanya

    Tanya

    July 15th, 2016 at 12:29 PM

    KG: For me, the silent stage has been a combination of several things (depending on my age – I’ve been surviving for a long time). Most recently, as an adult I experienced a form of abuse from a bf. Luckily I was smart enough and had the resources and personal strength to leave after 6 months. My silence was me processing what exactly happened. I was very disappointed in myself for ignoring my intuition (it took me YEARS to condition myself how to listen again). The more time away from him, the more I realized how controlling and abusive he was. If it weren’t for my 18 year old son, who knows where I would be. He had to tell me how bad it was and that I had to get out. You can’t see your hand if it’s too close to your face, and that was part of my problem here.
    Even now, I am very protective of myself. I see my current relationship and am constantly analyzing the situations to be sure I am not being taken advantage of, controlled or verbally abused. It sucks and it not fair that I feel like I need to actively protect myself. Hopefully one day I can just settle in and enjoy myself a bit more.

  • Waseemah

    Waseemah

    October 22nd, 2016 at 1:05 PM

    I’ve been abuse for 18 years of my marriage. My husband use to call me all sorts of names an he done this in front of my kids. He use to acuse me of so many things. He brought my self esteem so low that I hated myself,the way I looked. He now left me for a thinner model an blames for everything, he says its my fault that he use to abuse me an even his father said I liked the abuse. I later found out according to my husbands ways that he is a narcissist. Its sad. I’m now left to pick up the pieces an sometimes its hard coz I still feel all this hatred for him. I just hope that oneday I would be able to accept me for who I really am.

  • Elaine

    Elaine

    May 3rd, 2017 at 12:38 PM

    The most emotionally traumatic events that happened to me where the ones where there was no cause and effect. Most things in life function that way and when you are suddenly verbally attacked by someone whom you love it is disorienting and so extremely painful that the effects of shock can last for days or for the rest of your life even though you go through the stages of grief. I have many such memories and they sometimes still cause an emotional response. I seem to become more vulnerable to these disappointments when I’m getting a little run down or taking life to seriously. I’m definetly a survivor of child neglect, mental illness and the ostrafication, single parenting, abusive husband. I’m a celebrator of building a dance career, a teaching one, an allied health one, and a holistic life coach. I’ve entered into an affluent lifestyle and enjoy the grace of taking good things for granted. Given where I started out from I will say that I needed many of the obstacles in order to come into my own. I learned how to be brave and take calculated risks. I learned that I was a good person and deserved a good life. I learned that taking care of myself was the most important thing that I could do and that the rest would follow. I learned that you have to move on from and friends and family members who want you to remain the same. I learned that being alone was easire than being lonely while in a relationship. I learned what spirituality meant to me and set out to meet those needs.
    I’m not a happy go lucky person, but at age 57 I still have a naive trust in people. After all, I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers!

  • Scott

    Scott

    July 10th, 2018 at 9:11 AM

    Wonderful article. It seems to articulate so well my experiences. I am probably somewhere between stage 3 and 4 and it is comforting to know I’m on the right path. Thanks

  • Aldwin

    Aldwin

    November 15th, 2019 at 2:41 PM

    Very informative and enlightening article. Is this also applicable to traumatized children from war or terrorism?

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