What the Research Tells Us About Trauma Recovery

RAFT Team, March 12th, 2019

Any Type of Recovery Takes Time

We’ve all dealt with illness before and spent a day or two in bed with a fever. It might take a week or two to finally get our feet back under us and feel like we can function at 100%. Some of us have had minor surgery and realize it takes a few weeks to feel like ourselves again. Recovery just takes time.

Similarly, when a natural disaster (ie, trauma) occurs in a community, everyone in that community is affected by it. Most experts will agree that the emotional recovery period typically takes far longer than a year. The map below outlines what this recovery process can look like on an emotional level.

Figure 1 Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000

When we consider the ongoing nature of many types of trauma or abuse that women in particular experience (physical, psychological, sexual, financial, and emotional), it becomes easier to understand that this type of trauma recovery takes time as well. In fact, the recovery period is often far more difficult and takes longer than most would imagine.


Who Trauma Touches

Statistics tell us that at least 50% of us will experience some sort of trauma in our lifetime. Of those who experience trauma, 8% of survivors will experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, anger, shame, suicidal behavior, depression, and isolation. Women are twice as likely to develop PTSD, mostly due to long-term exposure to trauma.


The Effects of Trauma

Scientists have discovered that these traumatic experiences actually rewire the brain. Not only does this create a long-lasting recovery period, it makes potential relapse into fear and anxiety much more likely. Trauma can make empathy more difficult. It reduces our capacity to cope with life on a daily basis. Trauma’s fight or flight response is real, and affects body organs, not just the mind. Long-term exposure to trauma can push survivors into a state of constant of hyper arousal (overreaction), which throws cortisol (the stress hormone) output into overdrive. Consequently, trauma is exhausting and makes decision-making difficult. Over time, chronic stress from trauma can have dire physical consequences:

  • Addictive behaviors (alcohol, smoking, etc.)
  • Chronic pain
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Gastrointestinal illness
  • Cancer

Trauma Recovery Is Possible

The good news is that recovery is possible. When treatment that engages the brain’s neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change)), survivors can experience trauma recovery. Even better, increasing the brain’s neuroplasticity doesn’t involves a doctor’s office and lots of wires. The following approaches can aid in trauma recovery and build neuroplasticity:

Be Willing to Heal

Recovery takes time and a lot of work. Be willing to commit to the process, and to hang on through the ups and downs. Understand that what you’ve experienced doesn’t make you a victim — it makes you a survivor. Just as leaning into physical therapy with willingness and enthusiasm can help you recover from physical trauma more readily, showing up for your own emotional healing will help you along your trauma journey as well.

Accept Support From Others

Trauma makes it difficult to trust others. It’s much easier to isolate yourself and try to go through the healing process alone. Be willing to connect with others. Join a support group. Pursue therapy. Educate yourself along with a group of people who love, value, and encourage you. Healthy relationships can help you heal more quickly.

Practice Mindfulness

The daily, consistent practice of mindfulness can help rewire your brain in powerful ways. Not only does it help quiet the internal noise, it helps develop an internal locus of control. In fact, John Kabat-Zinn discovered that mindfulness reduces chronic pain, one of the symptoms of PTSD. In time, you’ll become a thoughtful responder rather than an emotional reactor.

Get Moving

Get your body moving. Physical exercise forces the body to release endorphins, which increase happiness and reduce pain. When you’re down or in pain, there might be a temptation to curl up and sleep, but there’s no better natural way to raise your emotional state than to get the blood pumping. Take a walk. Swing your arms. Do anything you can to move, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the result.

Odds are, we’re all going to deal with trauma at some point in our lives. Starting a healthy practice now will ensure you find your way through the trauma rather than succumb to it. Trauma recovery takes work, but recovery is possible! Be intentional, show up for yourself, gather a group of supporters around you, and celebrate the wins along the way.