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Trauma recovery: the Normal & Non-linear process of change

Trauma can leave a deep impact on an individual's mental and emotional well-being. The effects of trauma can manifest in various ways, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I'm a trauma-informed therapist and coach and I understand that recovery is not a linear process. I'll explain why understanding the non-linear process of change is crucial for trauma recovery and offer some tips to navigate the journey you might be on.

Why is it important to understand the non-linear process of change in trauma recovery?

Trauma can make it challenging to access or maintain a state of safety, which is crucial for recovery. When the safety state is active, it functions as a brake. It keeps the individual's heart rate at a calmer pace, something that Dr. Porges termed the "vagal brake."

The myelinated vagus functions as an active vagal brake (see Porges et al., 1996) in which rapid inhibition and disinhibition of vagal tone to the heart can rapidly mobilize or calm an individual. The myelinated vagus actively inhibits the sympathetic nervous system’s influences on the heart... -Porges, The Polyvagal Perspective

Translation - The newer mammalian vagal pathways calm the heart. When the heart rate is calmer, then flight/fight activation is kept at bay until actually needed.

The vagal brake is essential in helping someone to exist in their state of safety and social engagement. Frustratingly, it's also the thing that someone living in trauma is unable to access. Remember, trauma means that one is stuck down their Polyvagal ladder in a defensive state. The vagal brake must be developed and strengthened for unstucking to occur.

However, developing the vagal brake is not a linear process. Trauma can cause obstacles, both external and internal, that make it difficult to maintain progress.

By understanding that recovery is not a linear process, individuals can prepare themselves for setbacks and challenges along the way. They can approach the journey with more patience and compassion, both for themselves and for others. It's important to recognize that progress may not always be visible, and setbacks are a normal part of the change process.

It may feel like you are taking a step or two forward, then a step or two back. Or maybe even more. This is typical for any type of change. When it comes to trauma recovery, it may be. more pronounced and frustrating.

The stronger the vagal brake, the less intense the setbacks will be. The path of recovery opens up and becomes more clear.

What are some obstacles that individuals may face during trauma recovery?

External obstacles may include real-life safety concerns, like a lack of co-regulation at home, unsafe neighborhood or a difficult work environment. These external factors will make vagal brake development more difficult.

Internal obstacles will include chronic illnesses, cognitions that reinforce a stuck state and emotions that are too intolerable for the individual to experience fully. These will also make vagal brake development more difficult.

Additionally, individuals may experience emotional and physical discomfort as they work to gain more access to their safety state. As they become more grounded in the present moment, they may shift out of their shutdown state and into their fight or sympathetic state. This can be uncomfortable and may manifest as anger or discomfort, which can make it challenging to maintain progress.

So basically, even when successful and the vagal brake is strengthened, it may open up some dysregulation due to stuck defensive states attempting to release the frozen trauma or climb the Polyvagal ladder. New sensations, impulses, emotions and cognitions may emerge, something that I break down in my SSIEC sheet available for free in the free Members Center along with other nifty gifties.

How can you navigate your trauma recovery?

Okay, so we know that recovery is not linear. We know that it's going to be challenge, but there are ways to dampen the impact.

Practice self-compassion: Be gentle and patient with yourself during the recovery process as best you can. Recognize that setbacks are a normal part of the change process, and progress may not always be visible. Validate your experiences and normalize them for what they are. Your feelings are true. And they make sense.

Seek support: It's essential to have a support system in place during trauma recovery. This may include therapy, support groups, or trusted friends and family members. I don't think it needs to be a support system that is built around trauma recovery. It may simply be a group of like-minded people that can be with each other nonjudgmentally. This social engagement is essential in vagal brake development. My community of course students connect with each other and with me during our twice-monthly virtual meetups and our private discussion group. These connections are open to anyone enrolled in my PTRS courses.

Focus on the present moment: Practicing mindfulness and staying grounded in the present moment can help individuals stay on track during the recovery process. This can include using the senses to ground oneself in the present moment. This is also essential in vagal brake development. Being in the present moment means you are in your safety state. Continually return to the present moment, especially when there is mild dysregulation.

Put in the reps: Yes, there will be obstacles along the way. At the same time, recovering from these obstacles are essential in vagal brake development. One kinda needs to have challenges and then recover from those challenges mindfully. This exercises the individual's Polyvagal ladder climbing. Just like working out every day in order to run faster - you need to practice running and push yourself further, but then also allow for recovery time. Then do the same thing all over again. At first, you may just practice being in safety, then eventually practice feeling your stuck state as you are ready for it.

Normalize your recovery journey

Recovering from trauma is not a linear process, and it's important to understand that setbacks and challenges are a normal part of the journey. By practicing self-compassion, seeking support, and focusing on the present moment and putting in reps, individuals can navigate the non-linear process of change more effectively.

Remember, progress may not always be visible, but with time and effort, individuals can methodically move towards healing and growth.



Q: How long does it typically take to recover from trauma?

A: The recovery time for trauma can vary depending on the severity of the trauma and the individual's circumstances. Recovery is not a linear process, and it may take months or even years to achieve a sense of healing and growth. Common factors for more rapid recovery are: more access to the safety state and a stronger vagal brake, having connection with others, having safety in the environment, having productive things to be a part of.

Q: Is it possible to fully recover from trauma?

A: I think so! Though what is meant by "fully recover" might mean something different between you and me. I think trauma of course always affects someone, but it doesn't have to be a debilitating life obstacle. The impact of it changes. The meaning of it changes. I generally think one can live in a state of safety and social engagement and live a fulfilling life. I believe this so much that I created my own System to teach people how to do so.

Q: What are some other techniques for accessing a state of safety in trauma recovery?

A: Other techniques for accessing a state of safety may include deep breathing exercises, visualizations, guided meditations, and progressive muscle relaxation. It's essential to find what works best for each individual's unique needs and circumstances. I don't think there is one answer for everyone, though there may be commonalities.


About Justin:

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.


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