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How We Overcome Trauma

Getting through the stages after a unique type of loss.

Key points

  • When we are traumatized, we always lose something.
  • Similar to grief after a death, trauma recovery involves navigating various stages.
  • The stages include denial, bargaining, depression, anger, and acceptance.
fizkes / Shutterstock
Source: fizkes / Shutterstock

There is a real and intense process of grief when getting over past trauma. It takes time, and while a skilled therapist and supportive friends are critical for trauma recovery, a lot of the work you will do will be within yourself.

As you fight to confront and overcome the darkest memories and events in your past, you will be revisiting traumatic episodes and reliving the losses. We must examine the importance of these two words, loss, and grief, a bit more, as they are the centerpiece of your healing process and pathway back to peace.

When we are traumatized, we always lose something. It might be our joy, innocence, happiness, or a sense of dignity. But the loss is real and painful. It is like a death, and it needs to be mourned.

When we experience trauma, especially early in life, it is a uniquely painful type of loss. I have worked with many clients who suffered emotional or physical abuse as a child. In many ways, this abuse robbed them of the normal joys and childhood. For others, the death of a parent or sibling brought a cloud of sadness into their growing-up years.

Until we recognize the sadness associated with the loss, we cannot grieve. If loss is a noun in the realm of trauma, grief is a verb. Grief recovery is an active, conscious process that we undertake. While recognizing and realizing a loss is the first step in overcoming it, the next step in finding healing is to feel that loss. That process of recognizing and processing the loss is grief.

When we are unable to move through the experience of loss, we become stuck. We all know people who are stuck in the past, as the saying goes. It’s almost as if the trauma of that loss placed them in an emotional deep freeze, forever suspended in time, unable to move into the future.

Let's consider working through trauma in the context of the popular notion of the five stages of grief. We now understand that not everyone who experiences grief will experience all five of these stages, and that those who do may not experience them in this order, but it still provides a framework for considering how individuals can manage difficult feelings as they work through recovery from trauma.

1. Denial. When you experience a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, your survival instincts can kick in, and your brain may default to fight-or-flight mode. This process occurs in our midbrain, which is the seat of our basic survival instincts and responses. Our brains are built for survival and will do whatever it takes to protect us from life-threatening dangers. In the case of trauma, the same principle is in effect, and our first response may be to protect ourselves by denying the event.

The length of the denial stage is often correlated with the intensity of the event. In the worst case of childhood trauma, some events may be suppressed for years. As we grow older, those negative memories may rise to the surface, at which point we must choose whether or not to deal with them.

In other cases, memories—even of events that happened decades earlier—are seared into our brains. As much as we’d like to forget some events, we simply cannot.

2. Bargaining. This stage of grief may be marked by persistent thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the loss or trauma. Because children do not have the brain capacity to process trauma effectively, bargaining is a common trait, even persisting into adulthood.

Whether the child experienced the divorce of their parents, the death of a loved one, or another emotional trauma, they may believe, falsely, that they’re somehow to blame. Or, they may think they could have done something to prevent the traumatic event. These types of feelings often persist into adulthood, especially if the traumatic event has not been processed appropriately.

3. Depression. In this stage, we begin to realize and feel the true extent of the loss or trauma. Arguably, the most difficult stage in the grief process, depression, can set in when we begin to face the full brunt of the trauma we experienced.

This is where your friends and loved ones can help you along with a therapist. Let your safe circle of trusted advisors know that you are processing a lot of emotions and need support in the grief journey.

4. Anger. This stage usually happens when we feel helpless and powerless. Anger can stem from a feeling of abandonment because of loss. I have found that when people process trauma from the past, it is the anger stage that they become stuck. Especially if an individual suffered emotional or physical abuse early in life, getting past anger can be quite difficult.

Processing anger following a traumatic event takes courage, wisdom, and time. I would encourage you to take whatever time you need to deal with issues of anger and bitterness surrounding past trauma. Often, you will need all the help you can get to move beyond this stage.

I am not suggesting you dismiss the hardship caused to you by another person, but your ability to forgive releases you from the burden of holding on to the past pain and trauma of the event. Forgiving a person who was the source of your trauma does not let them off the hook for their bad behavior. It frees you and leads to healing.

5. Acceptance. This is the point where we can say, “Yes, what happened to me was unfair and terrible. What that person did to me was not OK. However, I have come to terms with the event and processed it accordingly. It no longer holds me captive. As I let go of my grief and surrender control over it, I am now freed from it.”

When it comes to trauma, forgiveness is a verb, not a noun. It takes intentional decisions and actions. Often, as we move along in our journey, it’s less like traveling in a straight line along a smooth surface.

It’s more like traversing switchbacks on a mountain trail. As we double back, we can become discouraged as we see the trail below us. It may not seem like we’re making progress. However, we are ascending the mountain incrementally. The summit grows ever closer. Keep going.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
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