Traumatic experiences can cause a major lag in your everyday life. There are days where you feel scared, sad, anxious, and distant while trying to suppress your memories of the event. Most of the time, these feelings stay with a person for a long time. This is referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Overcoming trauma usually requires professional help in the form of a psychologist to assist you in the process. It can be uncomfortable at first but the majority of people find it helps them grow and move past the trauma. There are two therapies for trauma which include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). Whilst these therapies work slightly differently and have their own stages. One model by Judith Herman incorporates the stages that someone needs to go through to recover from PTSD regardless of the therapeutic orientation.
The key principles of recovery rely on three main phases; establishing safety, retelling the story of the traumatic event, and reconnecting with others.
The first and foremost step in helping people recover from PTSD is creating a sense of safety. The psychologist aims to enable the patient to focus and take control of their bodies initially, helping them regulate and manage overwhelming emotions. This step starts with controlling things from within and then moving on to environmental factors.
Patients suffering from PTSD can have their emotions and basic functionality flowing in all sorts of directions. For this stage, the psychologist will aim to help them in focusing on their basic health needs such as their eating habits, sleeping patterns, and other elements of physically looking after oneself. Establishing an overall baseline of physical safety.
Since some people with PTSD can use self-harm as a way to ground themselves and cope with the trauma, this first stage proves to be the backbone of the entire recovery process as clients learn ways of coping and maintain this safety.
“The experience of emotional overwhelm is similar to that of a shaken bottle of soda. Inside the bottle is a tremendous amount of pressure. The safest way to release the pressure is to open and close the cap in a slow, cautious and intentional manner so as to prevent an explosion.” (Rothschild, 2010)
Remembrance and Mourning
As the process goes on and the client begins to trust the therapist, the second stage begins. This is when the person starts talking about the traumatic experience that they have lived through, putting emotions and words to it, to try and make sense of what happened. This is done in a very structured and safe way, only when the client is ready. It can differ slightly how this is done depending on whether the therapist is following a CBT or EMDR model. The purpose of this is to process the memory of the trauma. You can find out a little bit more about the neuropsychology behind this in our article “Why Am I Getting Flashbacks from PTSD?”
The therapist’s role is essential part of this stage as they’re required to not merely take a neutral stance but to stand firmly with the survivor and let them know that they understand them. The point is not to “re-live” the trauma but nor is it to tell the story with no emotions attached. Using the tools learnt in establishing safety it helps prevent the fight, flight or freeze response and allows an exploration and mourning of the losses associated with the trauma.
Reconnecting With The Self and Others
Once the client has begun to feel more safe and has processed the memory of the trauma, it leads us on to the final stage of recovery where people with PTSD learn to reconnect and try to get back into relationships. This is both with new people but also a new sense of self and new future. At this point survivors can manage their emotions and symptoms, trust others better, and seek social connections. Much of this stage is not just about regaining parts of life that were lost such as hobbies and social connections, but about joining these as a new person. As a survivor rather than the victim they were before. From this the trauma becomes integrated into the survivors life story but does not define them as a person.