We are discussing how to apply some of the principles of trauma recovery. Most recently, I talked about ways it may not be helpful to approach someone who has been traumatized. However, it is also important to know what is helpful to a trauma victim.
Helping someone who is recovering from trauma
It seems to be intuitive that it helps if a trauma victim can talk about her experience and process it with someone. However, the way that this talking/listening process occurs is imperative. Truly, trauma victims must find a way to make sense of their lives in light of their trauma, but helping them to do so must be accomplished with a level of care for how that process will happen.
Author Babette Rothschild in Eight Keys To Safe Trauma Recovery: Take-Charge Strategies To Empower Your Healing devotes all of Chapter 3 to a key she says is crucial to realize about recovering from trauma: Remembering Is Not Required. In this chapter, she refers to Judith Herman’s seminal classic, Trauma And Recovery, in which Herman describes the three essential faces of trauma recovery [p. 42]:
- Phase 1: establishing safety and stabilization; and she notes that this can take hours, weeks or even years
- Phase 2: processing trauma memories
- Phase 3: integrating and applying what was gained from the first two phases into daily life
Pushing processing before a victim is ready can be harmful
Rothschild emphasizes that therapists sometimes push for the processing of trauma memories way before safety and stabilization has occurred. She notes how recalling trauma can throw a person off-balance. “For anyone, recalling a traumatic past in an already wobbly state only increases the wobble…. For those who live with the emotional instability on a daily basis due to their trauma, increasing that instability can land them in deeper trouble.” [p. 43] Rothschild explains that this is quite different from becoming upset, which can be a natural part of all human expression.
Because her book is directed at individuals who have experienced trauma rather than therapists, she emphasizes that it is necessary for individuals with trauma issues to decide if, when and how they might process memories. She says the choices are:
- Tackle the memories in detail
- Review the memories in general
- Leave the memories completely alone
- Decide later which of these is appropriate for you [p.44]
Allow time for the person to become stable and ready
For someone who is wrestling with trauma-related issues, there can be freedom in learning that it is not necessary to re-create the details of a trauma in order to heal from it. Further, there certainly should be appropriate time given to becoming safe and stable before even thinking about processing memories that can lead to re-experiencing the trauma.
As we help children and adults who have been traumatized to make sense of their lives, we need to do so with great caution and sensitivity. They need to be safe and to understand that they have several options in how to process their trauma. Having options from which to choose in their journey to recovery will not only be less traumatizing but also will better facilitate healing. Each person must discover his/her own journey of recovering from his/her specific trauma.
It is all about safety throughout the whole process.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network