Seven Things to Know About Trauma Recovery

One of the things I’ve noticed, over all this time I’ve spent dealing with trauma and working with trauma survivors, is that there is a lot of confusion or lack of understanding as to what trauma recovery entails or how trauma can impact survivors.  I want to be clear from the start of this post, I’m not a psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker, but these observations do come from my observations and the accounts of other survivors I know, so take them as you will.  Here are some general things about trauma worth knowing:

1. Trauma impacts everyone differently

Everyone experiences trauma differently, and the details of any two traumatic experiences are likely to be very different as well.  This means that just because you have experienced a trauma, does not mean that everyone’s precise experience will match yours; and likewise, just because you have known someone or been close to someone who identified as a trauma survivors does not mean that the experience they conveyed to you can be universalized.  Respect the personal and unique ways that trauma colors people’s experiences and be open to learning about how the particular individual you’re talking to experiences trauma, if they are willing to share

2. Trauma recovery is non-linear

Just because it seems like someone has been doing well does not mean that they won’t experience backsliding or relapsing; and just because someone does seem to be slipping doesn’t mean they aren’t still recovering.  Trauma recovery is non-linear, which means that a bad week doesn’t mean that the whole process of recovery has been derailed, and a good week doesn’t mean that everything is totally solved.  It is okay and completely normal for a survivor to experience a mix of both.

3. If anything, trauma recovery is seasonal or cyclical

This is a relatively anecdotal observation, but given that certain events of times of year, like holidays or anniversaries of events or relationships, can stir up difficult feelings, it makes sense that people would swing through good and bad periods and then shift back between them.  This can last for a while, so don’t be upset or put off when a friend is still dealing with difficult memories three or four years out from a trauma; that doesn’t mean they are necessarily always struggling, or like they haven’t made progress.  It just means that certain times of year may be more difficult for them.

4. Triggers are not always what you think they will be

While detailed discussion of certain topics can be enough to stir up difficult emotions, the things that are more likely to be triggers for people are new iterations of events that prompted abuse, the use of similar phrases to those an abuser or attacker used, certain smells that prompt abrupt memory recall, narratives that are very similar to the survivor’s own experiences, certain dates or events on the calendar, songs that had meaning in a relationship, etc.  (For example, if a certain song was playing while someone was being sexually assaulted, you wouldn’t necessarily know that, but hearing the song could potentially trigger the survivor).  Be respectful if someone points out that something is difficult or triggering, and if you want to more actively support the survivor, just ask what they need.

5. Everyone responds to triggers in different ways

There is no one thing that happens when someone is triggered with regards to a trauma, or when someone encounters a difficult anniversary.  They may become quiet and withdrawn and need to be alone; they may need to cry; they may have dissociative episodes; they may start shaking; they may need physical contact to help them ground themselves; they may feel like their symptoms are exacerbated by physical contact.  Just because you or another survivor you know experiences triggers in a certain way, or just because a certain thing helps you or someone you know, does not mean this will hold true for everyone.  If you want to be helpful, again, just ask the survivor in question what they need and respond accordingly.

6. Trauma is not necessarily a stand-alone event

Some traumas are, in and of themselves, complex traumas: abusive relationships that include sexual assault, traumatic experiences that become tied to suicide attempts, etc.  Other times, a trauma may not seem explicitly linked to other difficult or traumatic incidents in a person’s life, but may be more subtly connected; this can be particularly true in cases where a survivor of childhood abuse is later re-victimized as an adult, especially if there are similarities in the pattern of their abuse.  Be aware that trying to dig through the emotional baggage of one trauma can cause a survivor to re-open wounds that they never thought they’d have to revisit, and that recovery dealing with complex trauma can be a long and difficult process.  Have patience for your friends who are struggling and remember that even if it takes a long time and doesn’t always seem like progress is happening (see #2), your friends are taking steps towards healing and your support can help them get there.

7. Trauma recovery sucks

I’ve heard so many trauma survivors say this, and it’s true: recovery sucks.  Unpacking unpleasant things that have happened to you is painful, difficult, and exhausting.  Coming to terms with a traumatic event often means revisiting the trauma (and possibly interrelated incidents; see #6). There are times when recovery feels like it will never end; there are times when it feels like you are fighting against an enemy that has the ability to just overwhelm you.  And because people can be supportive but no one can actually go through the process with you, parts of recovery feel lonely, sad, and isolating.  Those are the parts where support can matter the most, though: if you know a friend is going through trauma recovery and they seem withdrawn, check in with them, and remember that there is no right way to experience recovery, and no right length of time for recovery to take.

8. Recovery is worth the mess

I know that I said there are seven things I wanted people to know when interacting with survivors, but there’s an 8th thing I want to say, and I would particularly want survivors themselves to hear this: if you are going through trauma recovery and you feel overwhelmed, if you feel like you can’t keep fighting, if you feel like maybe it isn’t worth it, you are not alone.  So many people feel this way at some point in their recovery process, and that is 100% okay.  Even if the light at the end of the tunnel seems tiny and distant, please remember that it is there, and you can make it.  Let yourself feel bad on the bad days, but remember to take care of yourself when those days come: remember to engage in active self-care, give yourself space as needed, and reach out for support.

If you need additional help, please check out the following resources:

81 Mental Health Resources When You Can’t Afford a Therapist (includes resources for depression, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, and other common mental health needs)

Hotlines for when you really just need someone to talk to

Mentor-Connect, which pairs up individuals who are going through recovery for eating disorders with others who have already gone through recovery to provide additional support

RAINN’s list of nationally available resources for survivors of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and CSA

MaleSurvivor, which provides support to male survivors of sexual and domestic violence

Collection of self-care tips, suggestions, and resources

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~ by Randi Saunders on November 9, 2015.

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