A frequently asked question in my office is, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” The annoying and unsatisfying answer is, “No, it is your process and it should take exactly as long as it takes you.”
If it were me — and I don’t think I am different from my clients — I would want something more specific — like a clear, specific timeline for the healing process or even a chastisement that I’m spending too much time on my own process. In the uncertainty and distress of trauma healing, finding out the journey is, on some level, up to me is disconcerting.
There are many factors that impact the length of time needed to heal from a traumatic. Let’s look at a few of the big ones.
For starters, the severity of the traumatic event will impact the healing process. While it seems logical that the more severe an event the longer it will take to recover, it is not always so simple.
First, the level of severity will be experienced differently by different people depending on their histories and current living situations (e.g., previous trauma, supportive home environment, etc.).
Second, how severely a traumatic event is experienced is related to the perception of the level of danger to self or others. For example, a witness to a catastrophic car accident is likely to be more traumatized if he or she knows that someone died in the accident.
Another vital aspect that impacts healing time is that we must feel that we are not being traumatized again as we go through the healing process. In other words, we cannot be dragged at someone else’s pace through the process, we cannot be shamed for our emotions or thoughts, and we cannot feel alone through the process as we probably did when we actually experienced the traumatic event. So, it is crucially important that client and therapist establish a sense of emotional and physical safety in the relationship and room. Equally important is that the client communicate right away anything that feels like a breach to this sense of safety to maintain a sense of protection, well-being, and support.
If you are in a therapeutic relationship that does not feel safe for some reason, discuss this with your therapist or find a new one. Not every therapist is a great fit for your personality. Healing will be elusive otherwise.
Finally, it is very common to begin working on healing from a traumatic event years, or even decades, after it happened. To simplify, the longer ago the event happened, the longer it is likely to take you to recover. All that time of not talking about it, pushing it down, and ignoring triggers has made you an expert in compartmentalization, avoidance, and denial. These coping mechanisms are adaptive – they have gotten you this far – and they were important in your survival and functioning.
Unfortunately, over time, they break down and don’t work as well. As a result, the distress of the traumatic event starts to poke through, makes functioning more difficult, and brings you to therapy. The upside is that it brought you to therapy, and now you can heal instead of just manage!
The superpowers you gained in the process (see above coping mechanisms) will be your allies in the healing process, too. They will just be used differently (how to do this will be the subject of another article in the future). Having worked so hard to keep memories at bay, though, means that the healing process will require learning to allow yourself to have the memories, experience the emotions, trust that you will live through the emotions, feel worse before you feel better, and then eventually heal.
To heal from trauma means to experience freedom from the soul crushing sadness, terrifying dreams, upsetting intrusive memories, awful self blame and doubt, and devastating sense of shame that all go along with trauma. To be healed means to have a sense of wholeness, to love and accept yourself – and the you that experienced the trauma. To be healed means to have self confidence to be able to be yourself, set your limits, and do your thing. To be healed means to remember without losing ability to function, it means remembering and knowing that you have overcome!