The Three Phases of Trauma Treatment


“Why do I need to pay for a therapist when I can just talk to my friend for free?”

“How many sessions of therapy do I actually need?” 

“How often will I need to attend to therapy to see any changes?”


These are very common questions that may be asked by new clients who are ready to take the first steps in their healing process. It is important that you and your therapist talk about what you feel you can commit to from the start of your treatment. The cost of therapy can be significant and, even if you have insurance coverage, there can be limitations on the amount of coverage that is available to you. Treatment plans can be adjusted to give you the most relief from the symptoms you are experiencing.


Many of our therapists are trained in trauma-focused treatments like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing). In general, there are three phases of trauma treatment: Safety & Stabilization, Processing Trauma and Integration & Connecting with others (this concept was originally described by Pierre Janet, one of the first psychologists to really explore the impact of trauma and dissociation in therapy).

Stabilization & Safety:

The first phase of Safety & Stabilization is especially important in preparing for trauma therapy. If you are living in an unsafe living environment or having difficulty managing overwhelming emotions, your therapist will want to help you come up with a plan to address these issues before moving into any trauma processing work. It’s important that you are able to use and identify coping strategies that work well for you. This might take some patience and practice as not everyone will find the same strategies effective. It’s helpful to look at what you are already naturally doing to both calm or distract yourself when you feel overwhelmed. Therapists have understanding of how your nervous system functions and can help you to recognize when you might be engaged in a “fight, flight or freeze” response. This can also guide your treatment plan by helping you learn how to return to a calmer state when there is no present threat to your safety or wellbeing.

Trauma Processing:

When you and your therapist feel like you are coping well with your day-to-day stressors and are successfully using coping strategies, you will collaborate on the trauma processing treatment plan. Therapists have knowledge and experience in using various theoretical frameworks to help you see yourself and your behaviours through a new lens. For example, EMDR is rooted in the AIP (Adaptive Information Processing) model which offers explanation and understanding of the role your brain will play in helping you to better deal with traumatic memories. Your brain is geared towards your survival but it can become stuck in survival mode even when no present threat exists. The AIP model operates on the assumption that 1) your brain can learn new ways of storing memories that are less distressing and 2) your currently held beliefs about yourself can be changed if your brain is given the opportunity to heal these memories.


It is also understood that the responses that once helped you to cope with a traumatic experience may be creating the problems you are experiencing in your present day life. These symptoms are what usually bring people to seek therapy but you may not fully understand when this problem began for you. The therapist that draws from an AIP framework will help you to examine your past experiences to uncover when the problems may have begun in order to start healing them. Once you begin healing these earlier memories, you may notice a shifting in the beliefs you hold about yourself and this will have a positive effect in other areas of your life as well.


As you successfully begin to heal and shift some of the memories from your past experiences and present day triggers, you will want to start integrating this into your life and relationships. Integration might include working on new goals for the future. As you begin to heal, you may notice that hopes for the future that once felt impossible, may become closer to your reach. You will have less focus on the experiences of the past and feel more confident in your ability to plan for the future.


Once you have a better understanding of the phased approach to healing from trauma, you will understand why it’s difficult to assign an exact number of sessions or timeline for your healing. With the support of a trained therapist, you should have a treatment plan that you helped create and is responsive to your individual needs. The treatment plan can also serve as a map so you will know when you are getting closer to your destination. Even if you aren’t quite ready to take on a full course of trauma treatment, working with a therapist on the symptoms that matter most to you can help provide some relief and the foundation for any further work you may want to do in the future.

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