If you’ve experienced a frightening or disturbing event, you know that trauma can linger. In fact, psychological anguish can continue weeks, months, years, and even decades after a traumatic event occurs.
Trauma has the ability to seriously impair otherwise healthy, well-adjusted people. But there’s good news: While you’ll never forget what happened, recovery from trauma is possible.
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The Need for Trauma Recovery
If you’re healing from trauma, know that you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 50 percent of American adults will experience at least one traumatic event in their lives. A traumatic incident can involve active combat, a nearly fatal accident, a natural disaster, critical illness, or physical assault.
It’s normal to feel stressed, confused, and frightened during and immediately after witnessing or surviving a scary incident. For many people, it takes about a month to get back to feeling like their normal selves. If you have post-traumatic stress disorder, however, the effects of trauma can persist for much longer and can interfere with your everyday life.
The 3 Phases of Trauma Recovery
Recovery from trauma starts with the assessment and stabilization of your physical and mental condition by experts at a qualified trauma center, like the Trauma Health Care Team at UPMC Presbyterian.
As you prepare to go home, memories and feelings from the event may follow you more than you can anticipate or control. This is normal. Your care team will discuss with you all the symptoms you might experience — including scary thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic — and will provide you with resources to help you cope.
Phase 1: Safety and Stability
Your care team will discuss with you what your ongoing needs will look like after you’re discharged. You’ll also have a pharmacist consultation to learn how any prescribed medicines, supplies or medical equipment will contribute to your recovery. To ensure your healing stays on track, it’s important to diligently follow your doctor’s orders. Be patient with yourself; you’ll need time to heal.
Psychological recovery will begin once your brain recognizes that the benign places, things, people, and environments triggering you are not true dangers and don’t warrant the same fight-or-flight response as a legitimate threat.
A mental health expert can help you navigate this first phase of trauma recovery. You’ll learn to handle overwhelming emotions, regulate feelings, and manage fears. You’ll also gain tools to reduce the temptation to turn to risky coping behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn how to restabilize when confronted with triggers.
Phase 2: Remembering and Grieving
Once you’ve recovered your sense of safety and stability following the traumatic event, your mental health specialist will encourage you to process your trauma and acknowledge what you’ve lost. This doesn’t mean reliving the event, but exploring and integrating it (rather than dissociating from it) in a safe environment.
This psychological processing often occurs in tandem with the body’s healing. Know that physical pain or setbacks might slow your mental and emotional recovery, even serving as a source of triggers. Your mental health specialist will help you navigate this process. If you need crisis help at any time, you can call our 24-hour hotline.
Phase 3: Restoring Relationships
The final stage of recovery is about empowerment. You might worry that you’ll never be the same as you were before the traumatic incident, but the trauma you endured doesn’t need to define who you are.
Your mental health specialist will help you achieve and celebrate cognitive resolution so you can come to terms with and move forward from your trauma. Depending on your readiness, they may recommend that you participate in community reentry exercises to help you return to normal life with the guidance of rehabilitation experts.
If you’re on the road to trauma recovery, these resources can help:
- The National Center for PTSD’s Monthly Update emails
- A free, online screening test from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- The Critical Illness Recovery Center at UPMC Mercy
- ‘Asking For Help’: Do You Know How? by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress
- UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital
- NAMI Peer-to-Peer, the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s free educational program for mental health recovery
If you’re living in the aftermath of a trauma, remember that you’re not alone. With the right assistance, trauma recovery is possible.
Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or in a heartbeat. And when they do, minutes matter. UPMC’s Emergency Medicine and Trauma Care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our Emergency Departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care at several of our hospitals. If you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or visit the nearest Emergency Department.