Steps and 7 things to consider
Trauma describes your emotional reaction to an experience that makes you feel threatened, scared, and helpless.
There is no defined threshold for determining what damage is “severe enough” to cause trauma. A traumatic event may involve a single contact with death, such as a car accident. But traumatic events can also be complex, or continuous and repeated over time, such as neglect or abuse.
Since threats can involve physical or psychological harm, trauma doesn’t always leave you with visible injuries. But it can still linger long term, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Trauma can challenge your ideas of how the world works and who you are as a person. This disruption can have a ripple effect on all aspects of your life, from your plans for the future to your physical health and your relationship with your own body.
Healing from such profound change often takes a long time, and recovery from trauma isn’t always pretty or linear. Your journey may involve obstacles, detours and delays, as well as setbacks and loss of ground. You may not know where you are going or how to get there, but that’s okay.
Just as trauma can take many different forms, trauma recovery takes a multitude of paths. There’s no official roadmap, but keeping these 7 considerations in mind can prove helpful along the way.
Trauma is not something that you can simply “overcome” with the snap of your fingers. Recovery, as a rule, involves a number of tasks to complete, and you can’t really ignore any of them.
According to the extended transformational model, recovery from trauma occurs in five stages:
- Pre-traumatic characteristics. These refer to the character traits and views you had before the trauma. You can think of this stage as your general state when the trauma occurs.
- Rumination. At this point, your brain is working to process the trauma and figure out what happened. You may have a lot of strong feelings and intrusive memories at this point.
- Event centrality. This step marks a turning point. Here you take stock of how the trauma has changed your life and what you want to do in the future.
- Control. At this point, you begin to take active steps to change your life and deal with your symptoms of trauma.
- Mastery. Here you begin to adjust to your new post-traumatic life, refining your coping skills as you go. Although the trauma can still affect you, at this point it no longer controls your life.
Your recovery journey may not follow these steps exactly. These steps provide more of an approximate framework than a template that you need to draw precisely.
You may find it comforting to read stories about other people who have experienced similar traumatic events.
And certainly, recovery stories can inspire you and help you feel less alone. That said, try to avoid the temptation to use someone else’s story as a yardstick to judge your own journey.
- envy how quickly they adapted
- feel guilty for lashing out when they remained stoic
- ask yourself why your recovery isn’t more like theirs
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that your journey is yours alone.
Even if someone faced the same trauma, it is likely that they had different experiences before the trauma and found themselves in a different environment afterwards.
In other words, it’s not a fair race if the competitors run completely different courses.
The only accurate way to track your own recovery? Consider where you started from. And remember, another person’s success doesn’t erase your progress.
Trauma does not happen in a vacuum, nor does healing.
Say you survived a sexual assault. A range of factors, such as your gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion, can influence how you react to this trauma. Trauma care programs should always consider these elements of your identity.
According to a 2014 Canadian study, Indigenous survivors of sexual assault received culturally appropriate care that incorporated traditional healing approaches.
These culturally informed approaches to care recognized the effects of colonization and racism on their current traumas. It also utilized spiritual and community strengths that mainstream mental health care failed to incorporate.
Post-traumatic growth describes any positive change in your life that results from recovering from trauma.
It is the recovery process that leads to improvement, not the trauma itself. In other words, you can get stronger despite this pain and hurt, not because of this.
Also know that post-traumatic growth is not all or nothing. Many people experience a mixture of growth and challenges. You may find, for example, that recovery leaves you more grateful for life’s little pleasures, but also more vulnerable than before.
Society, as a whole, does not always have the patience with the healing process. During your recovery journey, you may encounter people who tell you to “move on” after your trauma or to “just get over it already” and get back to the status quo. Of course, these tips often serve their needs better than yours.
Trauma is often physically and emotionally draining, and you may need more rest during your recovery than you think. It’s always good to take a nap, relax with a nostalgic TV show or book, or just sit quietly when you need a break.
More fighter than feeler? You might think that self-care is an act of wickedness against outside forces that have tried to harm you. In short, you are acting directly to protect your body and soul from future harm.
Sometimes pleasure can offer a victory in itself.
For many people, social support is an essential part of recovery from trauma. Many trauma survivors have found that bonds with family, romantic partners and friends deepen early in the vulnerable process of recovery.
That said, you may not feel safe disclosing your trauma to everyone in your social circle if someone in your community has hurt you. If this is the case for you, connecting with a peer support group might be a good option. In a support group, people who share similar traumas help each other towards recovery and healing.
Support groups are usually free and confidential. But if you want more discretion, you can join support groups online, from the privacy of your home.
Check out our guide to the best online support groups for PTSD.
The support of a mental health professional, especially a trauma-informed therapist, can often be beneficial when working towards healing.
When to get help
It may be time to contact a professional if the effects of trauma:
- disrupt your typical eating and sleeping patterns
- making it difficult to concentrate on daily activities
- affect your mood and general state of mind
- contributing to relationship conflict
- affect your performance at school or work
This guide can help you start your search for the right therapist.
Trauma-informed physical and mental health care is designed to meet the unique needs of trauma survivors through:
- Emotional security. Trauma-informed healthcare professionals are careful to discuss your story without having you relive your trauma or trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
- Cultural sensitivity. Your therapist should have a working knowledge of your cultural background and understand common jargon and social norms.
- Agency. Trauma-informed care aims to restore your sense of control and power, helping you capitalize on your strengths.
- Social Login. Your therapist can encourage you to connect with other trauma survivors and community resources.
Therapists can incorporate a trauma-informed approach to care into almost any type of therapy.
Learn more about treatment options for PTSD.
Recovering from trauma can take a lot of time and hard work, but it’s totally possible.
Keep in mind, however, that recovery tends to be a gradual process. Having patience with yourself, not to mention a lot of self-compassion, can make a big difference.
And always remember that you don’t have to go on your journey alone. Relatives and other survivors can provide emotional support, while therapists can offer more professional advice.
Emily Swaim is a freelance writer and writer specializing in psychology. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from Kenyon College and a master’s degree in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of his work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find it on Twitter and LinkedIn.