The 4 Stages of Trauma
Regardless of whether we silence or express our trauma, we all need to process trauma at some time. Just like grieving, working through trauma is a part of the human condition that simply can't be avoided. To become happy and free from past pain and suffering, we must chart a journey forward. That is how we find hope, meaning, and freedom from our trauma.
How we deal with it and process trauma is is often represented in a four stage model. The resilience of the human spirit and the wisdom of our healing process gives hope to anyone recovering from trauma.
Stage 1: Disconnecting and Seeking Inner Safety
When highly traumatic events occur in our lives the shock that accompanies it is jolting to the human psyche. There is an excess of fear and caution and distrust that keeps the individual withdrawn and consumed in silence. Traumatized people don’t want to talk about what happened because in telling their story, they also relive the painful, terrifying, and uncomfortable memories, so they stay silent.
Many emotions surface in this stage. Common emotions include shame, guilt, embarrassment, feeling alone, denial, the rationalization that they somehow caused the event. The human mind is trying to make sense of the nonsensical to sort it all out. The trauma survivor feels very alone and isolated. Typically self-esteem and self-worth are low and their world feels like it has shrunk and is imploding. These feelings and experiences are beyond overwhelming. Traumatized people want to shut down and hope it all goes away. This response is healthy and designed to protect the human psyche from the painful reliving of the traumatic memories.
The trauma almost doubles and triples in this stage because it is relived and pushed down, which is traumatic in and of itself. Their world before the traumatic event and the world after those events feels sharply different. After the trauma it feels like there is no solution, no hope and the trauma survivor feels trapped into their painful, disconnected, and protective inner world. This shut-down phase is protective and is also time-limited. There is hope. Recovery will happen when the trauma survivor feels safe, and only then can they begin to process what they have experienced.
Stage 2: Transitioning Through the Trauma
This stage begins the transition through the trauma. The timeframe and length of time it takes varies for each individual. The trauma survivor now begins to recognize the impact and continued suffering the trauma is having on their daily life. Challenges with relationships, work, health and other areas of life become more obvious and disruptive.
The trauma survivor can choose to remain disconnected or begin the process of understanding and accepting that something needs to change.
There is an inner battle between needing to protect what's been damaged by the trauma and the need to grow, confront, and overcome the traumatic memories and feelings around them.
During this period it is important to have someone who will listen and support them. Support groups, close friends, or a trusting counsellor that provides a safe non-judgment space enables the survivor to process the trauma. Safety is critical to moving through this stage of trauma recovery. If there is no safety and if their is judgement, the trauma survivor will regress to Stage 1, to protect themselves.
Stage 3: Acceptance and Transformation
As the traumatic event is being processed and there is a continued transition away from the traumatic experience, the individual begins a new phase. This process opens up some light in their lives and they begin to see themselves as surviving the trauma instead of being consumed by it. By this time there has been some conversation about the experience with other people. It’s not a secret anymore. There has been some processing of the trauma by the survivor.
The events are not forgotten but there is more clarity and understanding and meaning around it all. They have started the process of knowing themselves at a greater level and finding some growth within themselves to build upon and realize who they are capable of becoming. They are finding their strength and becoming stronger because of the event(s), instead of feeling weaker and more hopeless.
This takes time. It’s a process where triggers and other memorable experiences will need to be worked through. Maybe it’s dreams or sounds or being in the same place or situations that brings the memories of the trauma to the surface. These triggers need to be dealt with and processed. Through time they learn and begin to believe they are still surviving. There will be times when it seems like they are going backwards, but this is all part of the healing process.
Resiliency begins to surface within the trauma survivor and they learn their inner strengths outweighs any external events or traumatic memories.
Stage 4: Thriving into Our Higher Self
Not all people make it to stage three. Most trauma survivors arrive at the other side of their experience and realize they have experienced profound change and growth from the challenges of their trauma. They have greater self-awareness and mindfulness. Their trauma has now been processed in such a way that it empowers them to be happy and move on with their lives.
Other trauma survivors choose to continue their growth and go beyond survivor-hood (that just allows an individual to move on with their life). These people are willing to continue their self-development and move into a life that allows them to apply their experiences to help and connect with others. These trauma survivors help others work through their life challenges by conveying what they have learned. These individuals become part of the thriving and growing community of individuals who want to connect with others in a capacity of altruism and human compassion.
For these trauma survivors, their traumatic experience has moulded them into an entirely different person and they feel compelled to follow their truth, beyond the boundaries of simply overcoming and surviving. They apply their post-traumatic growth to live a life with their higher-self.
Recovery is not an accident, it is an intentional process that demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit. Healing from these experiences is possible when we have compassion, support, and acceptance in our lives. Hope is what keeps us going through the tough times and ultimately takes us on a journey from surviving to thriving.