Trauma describes your emotional response to an experience that makes you feel threatened, afraid, and powerless.
There’s no set threshold of what harm is “bad enough” to cause trauma. A traumatic event could involve a single brush with death, like a car crash. But traumatic events can also be complex, or ongoing and repeated over time, like 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, as 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 corners of your life, from your plans for the future to your physical health and relationship with your own body.
Healing from such a profound change often takes a long time, and trauma recovery isn’t always pretty, or linear. Your journey may involve obstacles, detours, and delays, along with setbacks and lost ground. You may have no idea where you’re going or how to get there — but that’s OK.
Just as trauma can take many different forms, trauma recovery take a multitude of paths. There’s no official roadmap, but keeping these 7 considerations in mind may prove helpful along your way.
Trauma isn’t something you can just “get over” with a snap of your fingers. Recovery, as a general rule, involves a number of tasks to work through, and you can’t really skip any of these.
According to the Extended Transformational Model, trauma recovery happens in five stages:
- Pre-trauma characteristics. These refer to the traits and viewpoints you held before the trauma. You can think of this stage as your general state when the trauma occurs.
- Rumination. In this stage, your brain works to process the trauma and figure out what happened. You may have a lot of strong feelings and intrusive memories at this stage.
- Event centrality. This stage marks a turning point. Here, you take stock of how trauma has changed your life and what you want to do going forward.
- Control. In this stage, you begin taking active steps to change your life and cope with your trauma symptoms.
- Mastery. Here, you begin to adjust to your new, post-trauma life, refining your coping skills as you go. While the trauma may still affect you, at this stage it no longer controls your life.
Your recovery journey may not follow these steps exactly. These steps offer more of a rough framework than a pattern you need to trace precisely.
You may find it comforting to read stories about other people who experienced similar traumatic events.
And certainly, recovery narratives can offer some inspiration and help you feel less alone. That said, try to avoid the temptation to use someone else’s story as a measuring stick to judge your own journey.
- envy how rapidly they adjusted
- feel guilty for lashing out when they remained stoic
- wonder why your recovery doesn’t resemble theirs more closely
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that your journey is yours alone.
Even if someone faced an identical trauma, they still likely had different experiences before the trauma and found themselves in a different environment afterwards.
To put it another way, 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 doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and neither does healing.
Say you’ve survived a sexual assault. A range of factors, like your gender, age, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and religion, can influence how you respond to that trauma. Trauma care programs should always take those parts of your identity into account.
According to a 2014 Canadian study, Indigenous survivors of sexual assault benefited from culture-informed care that incorporated traditional healing approaches.
These culture-informed care approaches acknowledged the effects of colonization and racism on their current traumas. It also made use of spiritual and communal strengths that mainstream mental health care neglected to incorporate.
Post-traumatic growth describes any positive changes in your life that stem from trauma recovery.
Examples of post-traumatic growth
- Personal strength. You might go on to feel more confident, capable, or assertive than you did before the traumatic event.
- Relating to others. You might find it possible to develop closer bonds with others or grow your support network.
- Appreciation of life. You may find it easier to live without taking the present for granted and treasure everything life has to offer.
It’s the recovery process that leads to improvement, not the trauma itself. In other words, you can become stronger in spite of that pain and hurt, not because of it.
Know, too, that, post-traumatic growth isn’t all or nothing. Many people experience a mix of growth and challenges. You may find, for example, that recovery leaves you with more gratitude for the small pleasures in life — but also more vulnerable than before.
Society, as a whole, doesn’t always have patience with the healing process. During your recovery journey, you may encounter people who tell you to “move on” from your trauma or “just get over it already” and return to the status quo. Of course, this advice often better serves their needs than yours.
Trauma often proves both physically and emotionally draining, and you may need more rest during recovery than you think. It’s always OK to take naps, relax with a nostalgic TV show or book, or simply sit quietly when you need a break.
More of a fighter than a feeler? You might think of self-care as an act of spite against the outside forces that tried to hurt you. In short, you’re taking direct action to protect your body and soul from any future harm.
Sometimes, pleasure can offer a victory in itself.
For many people, social support makes up a vital part of recovery from trauma. Many trauma survivors have found that bonds with family, romantic partners, and friends deepen as they begin 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 hurt you. If that’s the case for you, connecting with a peer support group could be a good option. In a support group, people who share similar traumas work to help each other toward recovery and healing.
Support groups are typically free and confidential. But if you want additional discretion, you can join support groups online, from the privacy of your home.
Support from a mental health professional, particularly a trauma-informed therapist, can often have benefit as you work toward healing.
When to get support
It may be time to reach out to a professional if the effects of trauma:
- disrupt your typical eating and sleeping patterns
- make it hard to focus on daily activities
- affect your mood and overall mindset
- contribute to relationship conflict
- affect your performance at school or work
Trauma-informed physical and mental healthcare is designed to support the unique needs of trauma survivors through:
- Emotional safety. Trauma-informed healthcare professionals take care to discuss your history without making you relive your trauma or triggering post-traumatic stress symptoms.
- 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 connection. Your therapist may encourage you to connect with fellow trauma survivors and community resources.
Therapists can incorporate a trauma-informed approach to care into almost any type of therapy.
Recovery from trauma can take a lot of time and hard work, but it’s absolutely possible.
Keep in mind, though, that recovery does tend to be a gradual process. Having patience with yourself, not to mention plenty of self-compassion, can make a big difference.
And always remember, you don’t have to make your journey alone. Loved ones and other survivors can provide emotional support, while therapists can offer more professional guidance.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA 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 her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.