The Three Stages of Healing Complex Trauma


This model is borrowed from Judith Herman’s stages of trauma healing as well as EMDR best practice

Stage One~

Education ~ Stabilization~  Safety.

Depending on the severity of complex trauma a person can remain in this stage for a couple of years or longer.

Education helps normalize, ” You mean I’m not crazy?”  No, your nervous system and brain are responding exactly the way it was designed to respond after having survived repeated traumatic experiences.


Learn ways to manage urges to abuse substances and alcohol. Find a therapist that understands Concurrent treatment and not just treating substances or just treating mental health.

Singular treatment is dated and is not supported by best practice.

Learning skills to contain and ground distressing emotions.

Learning and using Dialectic Behaviour Therapy skills to replace self-harm behaviours like cutting,  and suicide attempts.

Obtaining supports to help with crisis situations such as a therapist, using a local crisis line, creating a support plan that includes phone numbers of people you will call and services you will reach out to if you are feeling suicidal.

In some cases, medications can be helpful.

Medications like Suboxone and Methadone for opioid dependency can be helpful.   SSRI  (certain antidepressant) can be beneficial for PTSD anxiety and depression. Most importantly these Medications are meant to be temporary and work best in conjunction with therapy.


Stage Two~

Remembering and Mourning.
Evidence-Based Treatments for this stage are:

  • EMDR
  • EMDR for Dissociative Disorders
  • EMDR for Substance Abuse
  • Cognitive Processing Treatment
  • CBT Trauma-Focused Treatment

This stage of recovery is about making sense of what happened

The main work of stage Two involves:

  • Recognizing that the abuse is not about who you are ( worthwhile being) but rather what happened to you.
  • Deconstructing and letting go of transferred shame, guilt and disgust that is often passed on from the perpetrator to the victim. Knowing who you are ( a unique, beautiful being) not what the perpetrator told you who you were.
  • Mourning the loss of a  happy childhood that you deserved.
  • Choosing with your therapist to help with distressing memories that may be affecting your quality of life, i.e.,
  • sleep disturbances such as night terrors, flashbacks, ruminations, dissociation, hypervigilance.
  • Working with a therapist who is trained in ego state therapy for dissociative disorders

One of the most research-supported approaches for processing traumatic memories is Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing  ( EMDR). This method can transform traumatic memories into memories that no longer create the distress that you have become used to and you don’t have to talk about them for this therapy to work.



Stage Three~

Meaning and Reconnection

Making sense of your past, present and future through exploring meaning. For some, this is spirituality, religion. For others, it may be using philosophy or mythology to make sense of  existential questions such as ” why did this happen?’ Why am I here? And What does it all mean for me?

This stage is also about reconnecting with your community, and for some, it’s about giving back or focusing on dreams, and goals for the future. Now that you have a lighter backpack moving forward with your goals and dreams is possible.

Remember that Recovery is not linear. Your journey will likely not follow a straight line, but instead might be circular moving in and out of stages until you feel you are ready to move forward and reconnect with your goals and dreams. ~

© Crystal Arber all rights reserved.

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