Feeling lost and afraid? Come to terms with the Complex PTSD recovery stages we all go through

Are you feeling lost and afraid with your Complex PTSD recovery? Don’t fret – you’re not alone. Feeling lost, afraid, confused and sad are just a few of the dozens of emotions that arise in the different Complex PTSD recovery stages.

In my experience, as well as in countless books about CPTSD I’ve read and recommend, understanding each of the Complex PTSD recovery stages keep me afloat and treading water during the more overwhelming and gut-wrenching parts of therapy and recovery.

What is Complex PTSD Infographic - courtesy Complex PTSD Help

So what are the stages of CPTSD Recovery?

It’s broadly accepted by trauma-informed practitioners and advocates and validated by survivors themselves to think about recovery from Complex PTSD in three stages.

I can’t imagine that anyone has ever followed the stages of recovery in perfect order.

It’s best to think of the first stage, Establishing Safety, as a building block for the rest of your recovery rather than one you start and finish.

Establishing Safety: foundation stage of Complex PTSD recovery

In the context of Complex PTSD recovery, “establishing safety” refers to the foundational phase of the CPTSD recovery process, focusing on creating a secure and stable environment for you.

It’s not just something that’s important to you in your recovery – it’s also one of the six core principles of trauma-informed care.

This stage is where you do your best to acknowledge the impact of the trauma you’ve suffered; because this is such an emotionally volatile acknowledgement, creating zones of safety for yourself is critical.

It will continue to be a key feature of your recovery program in the later stages; it’s also an attribute of “normies”, or those that haven’t suffered complex trauma or CPTSD. It’s just good “adulting”!

With that said, everyone has to establish their own version of safety.

When I think about safety in the context of my recovery, I think about creating a bubble or adopting a protective skin that insulates me from people, places and things that are not conducive to my inner child feeling emotionally and physically safe.

If I’m in a particularly vulnerable state due to an unresolved emotional flashback I’m currently experiencing, I’m even more inclined to zip the protective bubble up around me.

In the past, I might be inclined to lash out in a defensive mode, to become manic and hyper-vigilant or engage in reckless or impulsive behavior that numbed whatever the energy of that flashback was trying to express to me.


Some questions I ask that fall into the categories of people, places and things.

PEOPLE

Are any family, friends or specific individuals I need to stay away from right now while I’m at my most vulnerable in the early stages of C-PTSD recovery?

PLACES

Are there places I go that I am easily triggered or have had emotional flashbacks that were painful and debilitating? Are there places that I need to avoid because I’ve come to realize these were coping mechanisms to avoid dealing with my trauma?

THINGS

What things do I need to stay away from? Are there foods, drinks, medications, recreational drugs or alcohol that I need to stay away from for the time being? Are there things I’ve used to self-medicate that I should avoid?

On the other hand…

PEOPLE

Are there people I feel safe with who I’m confident will show unconditional love and not judge me if I share my vulnerabilities and trauma history with? Is there an online or in-person support group for CPTSD that I can participate in or research to determine if it’s a safe place for me?

PLACES

Where do I feel safest? Are there places where I feel safe and that inspire me to recover? Are there safe places I can go when I anticipate I’m going to have some emotional challenges? Do I have a place I can “eject” to if I’m overwhelmed with my recovery?

THINGS

Are there any things that are helpful and add to my recovery? Where are they? Are there things I can substitute in for things I’m avoiding?


The exercise of assessing people, places and things is a daily part of my Complex PTSD recovery.

As one who’s been prone to overanalyzing and second-guessing myself about how, with whom and what I do every minute of the day, I’m now able to make quick and accurate assessments of my surroundings in a non-emotional way.

Is this person safe to be around right now for me?
Yes or no.

Am in a place I feel safe right now and that’s a positive environment for me to be in?
Yes or no.

Is this something that’s healthy and moves me closer to recovery or away from it?
Yes or no.


In the early stages of my recovery from Complex PTSD, stepping up my awareness and discipline regarding people, places and things in my “safe zone” were critical to advancing towards the more complex and emotionally turbulent stages.

That’s why viewing Establishing Safety as a building block rather than a check box to mark off is so important.

Monitoring people, places and things around me becomes a stronger habit each day, which is all the more important when any of us, including myself, tackle flashbacks and strong emotions that we’ve previously covered up.

Remembrance & Mourning: Critical stage of Complex PTSD Recovery

When the coping mechanisms are set aside and avoidance strategies are surrendered by a C-PTSD survivor, a new stage of recovery begins.

That’s when remembrance of of the abusive acts, the damage inflicted and the consequences to your future self can begin.

Mourning

Now, hopefully with therapeutic and peer support, one can begin to practice remembrance and mourning.

Mourning loss stage in recovery from CPTSD showing broken heart held together by two hands

The remembrance component of this stage is where individuals confront and process traumatic memories, allowing themselves to experience and express the raw and repressed emotions associated with past events.

This stage acknowledges the necessity of revisiting the trauma, exploring the circumstances, the wrongs done to you, the damage and how you moved on from the traumatic experience.

Since Complex PTSD by its nature arises from childhood sexual abuse, neglect and/or physical and verbal abuse, there is a tremendous value and necessity in mourning the “losses incurred during those “lost innocence”difficult times.

Using the safe environment you’ve created, you can now begin to acknowledge and view and confirm that “yes, I was a victim, I was damaged and I was not at fault).

Peer support, therapeutic and psychiatric help and dozens of techniques are at your disposal, depending on your circumstances, to move through this cathartic exercise.

complex PTSD recovery stages - image of swing denoting lost childhood

The mourning phase in your Complex PTSD (CPTSD) recovery is a crucial stage where we confront, process, and mourn the losses associated with our traumatic experiences.

During this phase, you allow yourself to feel and express the emotions tied to the trauma, acknowledging the pain, grief, and any consequences the trauma has caused in your life.

Here is where you come to terms with the damage inflicted on you in the past, recognizing what was lost, and giving yourself room to remember, feel, mourn and clear the memory.

The goal is to promote healing by acknowledging, processing and validating these complex emotions, which clears a path for you to move forward in your recovery journey from CPTSD.

Reconnecting: Connecting your adult self with others

Reconnecting stage in recovery from CPTSD child and adult walking
complex PTSD recovery stages

When you move through the acknowledgement and impact of the trauma you suffered, you’ll naturally beginning reconnecting with others or connecting with new people.

Reconnecting involves a transformation in self-identity, where the individual accepts the trauma as a part of their life story without allowing it to define their present and future.

Reconnecting encompasses reassessing relationships, setting healthier boundaries, and developing new interpersonal skills.

As a survivor who found their Complex-PTSD diagnosis as an adult, I’ve personally found the term “re-connecting” misleading in some instances.

For anyone around me, my wounded inner child was who people saw and heard from.

That’s what they knew of me.

Now, when they say “you’re a new person!”, I accept their sentiment and compliment.

But I think my recovery is more than that – it’s not that my recovery has made me a “new” person they are reconnecting with.

They are just now interacting with the adult version of myself.

The key differentiation is that my wounded, afraid, insecure and tormented child part of me will always be there. It’s just that now, as a fully functionally adult, people are experiencing the adult version of myself.

My recovery is never finished – if the adult part of me does not continue to show up, just as each of my parents and family members neglected to do at times in my childhood, my inner child will rear up, or some other part of me will act in an irrational manner to protect itself from danger.

If there’s a permanent, on-going stage to recovery from Complex PTSD, it’s this dynamic.

In my case, the adult part of me resolves to show up every day to protect and nurture other aspects of my being.

As opposed to my past, the adult version of myself is now the decision maker, protector and chief nurturer of every other part of my being.

If you or someone you know is in crisis

Call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline  at 988 .

The Lifeline provides 24-hour, confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call 911 in life-threatening situations.

If you are worried about a friend’s social media updates, you can contact safety teams at the social media company .

They will reach out to connect the person with the help they need.

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