Embarking on the trauma-healing journey can often feel like navigating an unfamiliar landscape. Although everyone's trauma recovery path is different, they are each filled with challenges and opportunities for profound growth and transformation. Understanding the stages of trauma healing can provide a roadmap, guiding you toward healing and resilience.
In this article, I'll explore the three key stages of trauma recovery through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory, the groundbreaking neurophysiology that offers valuable insights into our body's response to trauma. These stages include:
Each stage is not only a step toward recovery but also a step toward understanding yourself better. As we delve into these stages, you'll discover how they are interconnected, each building on the last, forming a comprehensive approach to trauma recovery.
Whether at the beginning of your trauma recovery journey or well on your way, this article will provide valuable insights and practical strategies to support your healing process.
Stages of Trauma Healing 1: Learning Clear and Accurate Information
The first of three stages of trauma healing is equipping yourself with clear, accurate information. Knowledge is power, and in trauma recovery, it's the power to understand, normalize, reframe, and ultimately change your responses to traumatic experiences.
On my podcast, I say that I help people to get more clarity, confidence, and connection without psychobabble. I think this is crucial in trauma healing and mental health in general.
Information that relies on abstract concepts, like "parts" or "shadows" could be helpful but is also generally unnecessary. The sooner one can get to their direct felt experience, the better. This podcast playlist is a deep dive into how I think about these psychological concepts and why they are unnecessary. I think there's a better option to focus your energies on in the initial stages of trauma healing.
The Polyvagal Theory is foundational knowledge for trauma healing.
Instead of abstract or outdated psychological ideas, I recommend narrowing your focus to the scientific understanding of trauma and how you got stuck in a traumatized state. Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory provides a framework for understanding how our nervous system responds to stress and trauma.
These are some key Polyvagal Theory teachings to aid in your trauma healing:
Autonomic states & the Polyvagal Ladder: Your autonomic nervous system adjusts your body for safety or danger. If you cannot be safe, your body shifts into a danger state of flight, fight, shutdown, or freeze. These autonomic shifts happen unconsciously and in pursuit of survival.
Neuroception: The process of unconsciously detecting cues of danger from the environment, which then triggers autonomic state shifts. Neuroception constantly scans your environment for cues of safety or danger.
Co-regulation: This is the unconscious biological process of providing cues of safety from one person to another. Co-regulation can be found in relationships with safe others, like a therapist or a loved one.
The Polyvagal Theory is not the only helpful piece of foundational knowledge to aid your trauma healing. However, I have found it to be the most helpful for my therapy clients. Attachment theory is also a helpful piece of information and is ultimately grounded in science.
If you are pulled toward other psychological concepts, there is nothing wrong with pursuing them. Many people find benefit from using metaphors like "parts," "shadows," and "ego." However, these are grounded in belief and are non-falsifiable ideas.
Stages of Trauma Healing 2: Building the Safety State or "Vagal Brake"
Once you've equipped yourself with clear and accurate information, the next stage in trauma recovery is building what's known as the safety state, or "vagal brake." This second stage is about cultivating a sense of safety within yourself, which is crucial for healing from trauma.
Safety is more than the literal environment and more than a feeling. Safety is about biology. You have specific biological pathways that are responsible for your feelings of safety and your ability to connect with yourself and others. When you strengthen your safety state, you also build something called "the vagal brake."
The term "vagal brake" comes from the Polyvagal Theory and refers to our body's ability to regulate physiological arousal, reducing defensive activation. Our vagal brake is on when we're in a state of safety, helping us maintain a calm and balanced state.
A stronger safety state leads to more distress tolerance.
So the stronger your vagal brake is, the more distress tolerance you will have.
In trauma healing, it's common to return to the trauma narrative through practices like journaling, self-reflection, and therapy. I don't believe doing so is entirely necessary and may result in retraumatization. Nevertheless, it's very common and will likely come up for you through your trauma-healing journey.
Building the strength of your vagal brake will better prepare you for the emotional turmoil of defensive state activation that may come along with your trauma narrative or memories of your traumatic incidents. This is where distress tolerance is important.
A stronger safety state leads to calmness, curiosity, confidence, and connection.
Yes, your distress tolerance goes up, and you are better able to handle memories related to your trauma. But developing the strength of your safety state has other benefits as well.
As you strengthen your safety state, you will notice more curiosity: more curiosity in the world around you, but also the world within yourself. The outer curiosity will tug at you to connect with your outer world. And it will pull you toward more connection with others.
The inner curiosity will direct your self-compassionate attention inwards. With self-compassion and confidence, you will be better able to directly and mindfully experience your stuck defensive state.
Building your vagal brake is a process, not a one-time event. It takes time, patience, and consistent practice. But with each step, you're strengthening your capacity for self-regulation and resilience, creating a solid foundation for the next stage of trauma recovery: mindfully experiencing your stuck defensive state.
Stages of Trauma Healing 3: Mindfully Experiencing Your Stuck Defensive State
The third stage of trauma recovery involves mindfully experiencing your stuck defensive state. This might sound intimidating, but it's an essential part of the healing process. It's about facing, rather than avoiding, the defensive responses triggered by trauma.
A lot of good can be done through stage 2 of building your vagal brake. You will probably notice many positive changes, like less dysregulation and more curiosity. But to truly relieve your stuck defensive state, stage 3 is necessary.
In the context of the Polyvagal Theory, a "stuck defensive state" refers to being caught in a chronic state of fight, flight, shutdown, or freeze. These are natural responses to dangerous and life-threatening situations, but when we're stuck in these states, it can lead to a range of physical and emotional challenges.
The point is not coping or forcing your pains to go away.
Mindfully experiencing your stuck defensive state is not about forcing yourself out of these defensive responses. And it's not about coping with the obvious manifestations of your dysregulation, like anxiety and panic.
Instead, it's about bringing a gentle, non-judgmental awareness to these experiences. It's about observing your defensive responses without getting caught up in them or judging yourself for having them. Stage 2 - developing your vagal brake strength - is essential for this process and completely overlooked by most therapists and the modalities they use.
Mindful awareness can be a powerful tool for healing. It can help you recognize when you're slipping into a defensive state, understand what triggers these responses, and develop more compassionate ways of responding to them.
But it can also bring a compassionate and curious observer to what is inside of you. Mindfulness can help you identify where your stuck state resides and how to experience it nonjudgmentally. As you mindfully experience your Polyvagal defensive states, the natural process of self-regulation unfolds. Self-regulation is not forced; it is allowed, witnessed, and experienced. I call this the A->W->E Method in my Polyvagal Trauma Relief System. This comprehensive System addresses all three stages of trauma healing with in-depth lessons and practical steps you can use starting today.
The 3rd stage of trauma healing can be challenging, and it's okay to seek support as you navigate it. Whether that's through a trusted therapist, a supportive community, or resources like the courses and community in the Total Access Membership, remember that you don't have to go through this process alone.
Get all 3 stages of trauma healing in one subscription.
If you're ready to delve deeper into these stages of trauma recovery, consider joining the Total Access Membership. Total Access provides you with a wealth of resources, including courses that guide you through each stage of trauma recovery. You'll gain access to in-depth information, practical strategies, and a supportive private community to assist you on your healing journey. Don't navigate this path alone - join the Total Access Membership today.
You're Allowed to Grow and Change. You Don't Need Permission.
For further reading, I recommend checking out the blog post Personal Growth is Allowed and Necessary: You Don't Need Permission from Others!. This article will empower you to take control of your personal growth and break free from the need for validation from others.
3 Quotes from this Blog:
Knowledge is power, and in trauma recovery, it's the power to understand, normalize, reframe, and ultimately change your responses to traumatic experiences.
Building your vagal brake is a process, not a one-time event. It takes time, patience, and consistent practice. But with each step, you're strengthening your capacity for self-regulation and resilience.
Mindfully experiencing your stuck defensive state is not about forcing yourself out of these defensive responses. Instead, it's about bringing a gentle, non-judgmental awareness to these experiences.
Q&A from this Blog:
Q: What are the three stages of trauma healing?
A: The three stages are learning clear and accurate information, building the safety state or "vagal brake," and mindfully experiencing your stuck defensive state.
Q: What is the "vagal brake" in trauma healing?
A: The "vagal brake" refers to our body's ability to regulate physiological arousal, reducing defensive activation. Building the "vagal brake" is about enhancing your body's capacity to return to a state of safety after experiencing stress or trauma.
Q: How can I mindfully experience my stuck defensive state?
A: Mindfully experiencing your stuck defensive state involves bringing a gentle, non-judgmental awareness to your defensive responses. It's about observing these responses without getting caught up in them or judging yourself for having them.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.