Going through a traumatic experience can be extremely different from one person to the next. Not everyone who endures trauma is scarred by it, and for those who are scarred, it doesn’t mean they can’t move on. According to psychologist Dr. Ellen McGrath, known for her books on stress and depression management, there are four basic stages in recovering from a traumatic experience and the profound stress that accompanies it:traumatic event
Stage One: Breaking the Circuitry — traumatic event
McGrath compares the human nervous system with an electrical system, explaining that if you overload an electrical system with too much energy and stimulation, it shuts down. The same is true for the human body. When overwhelmed with too much fear or danger during trauma, the body shuts down, which can help to explain the numb feeling that many describe after being part of a traumatic event. The physical and emotional reactions to trauma vary from person to person. There are a wide variety of responses that are considered to be normal.
Stage Two: Feeling Again
Recovering from trauma can involve sessions with a therapist or a counselor, or it could happen by just telling the story, over and over again. Many times, the last thing someone who has witnessed a traumatic event wants to do it talk about it, and describe what they saw and how they felt, but it’s an important part of healing. McGrath explains that by telling the story, people can begin to let go of their anxiety and distress, and associate it instead with the memory of the event. This method doesn’t work for everyone. For some, talking about it is too much to handle. Feelings can also be expressed through writing or drawing.
McGrath has broken down the expression of feelings into four basic patterns that people employ in response to a crisis. Each pattern demands a different approach.
- The Trickle Effect – Feelings flow out slow but steady. This takes time, as someone with this pattern most often experiences feelings at a low or medium level.
- Hit and Run Feelings – Someone showing this pattern may hit an emotion suddenly and experience it intensely, then show fear and run from it. They will most likely avoid the feeling and suppress it for days, weeks or even months.
- Roller Coasters – In this pattern, emotions are up and down. A person may understand the emotions, but feelings may be all over the place.
- Tsunamis – Emotions in this pattern come in tidal wives that are overwhelming. A person may express extreme emotions, then once the storm ends, they feel better.
Stage Three: Taking Action
Taking action after trauma restores a sense of control to counteract the feeling of helplessness that many experience after a traumatic event. Constructive action can come in the form of writing a thank-you letter to rescue workers, donating to a charity, sending a card to loved ones, collecting supplies for the community, or anything else that feels empowering and is sure to make a difference. McGrath explains that no gesture is too small — Constructive action is about contributing something and getting back into the swing of things.
Stage Four: Re-Joining the Community
It may be impossible to see at the time, but a traumatic experience can be used as an opportunity to learn and grow. Work through the hard parts to find the meaning of the difficult experience. Reach out to others who have a similar story to help them overcome their pain and share in their growth; there are many support groups available. Engaging in the process of recovery can bring about strength and growth. People may even find a new meaning in their lives, or a new goal or purpose. Those at this stage may experience a new appreciation for life and their loved ones.
Healing after trauma is entirely possible. Everyone travels a different path, and it will take different amounts of time for each person to get there. But once a person reaches stage four, he or she will likely say that the difficult journey of the healing process has been worth it.