How to Rebuild Your Trust After Trauma


Learning about the three stages of rebuilding trust can help you to progress in your recovery.


Trust is like blood. You need it to live, but when it is spilled all over it makes for a real mess.

Love is unconditional, no strings attached. At least that’s how it should be.

But trust, trust comes with a set of strings. Break them, and you have to earn it back. And for some of us, our trust strings are stretched pretty thin.

Trust is like blood. You need it to live, but when it is spilled all over it makes for a real mess.

Trust can be difficult if you have experienced trauma, abuse, or a family history of addiction or mental illness. It’s like you have trust radar set to maximum.

Having a highly-tuned trust radar will protect you from harm, but as an adult, it can prevent you from growing and from experiencing all that life has for you. High trust walls can rob you of healing relationships and other opportunities to build new strengths.

Part of recovery is learning that not everyone is a risk and not every situation is a danger. Not everything requires a Defcon response. Defcon is the US Military’s alert state. It stands for Defense Readiness Condition (or Defense-Condition).

It is a good metaphor because not every person, circumstance, or even emergency requires a DEFCON response from you. It is possible to rebuild a trusting relationship with people, with your life and with the world around you.

Author and Therapist Judith Herman wrote about trust-building in her classic book, Trauma and Recovery. She outlines three stages that help to give you some context for your trust-building work.

Part of recovery is learning that not everyone is a risk and not every situation is a danger.

Stage 1: Create safety and stability in your life. It can be a mistake to dive into the hard stuff of talking about your past but having no idea where it will go. Instead, prepare yourself for the hard work of trust building. A few examples that will help you to create safety:

  • Take stock of the work that you need to do and how long it could take. Just like any home-renovation project (at least in my experience), it will probably take you three times as long as you think it will and it will likely run over budget. Remind yourself that no matter how long it takes or what it costs, your recovery is worth it.
  • Get healthy in your mind and body. This could involve limiting unhealthy foods, getting more exercise, learning to focus your attention or meditate, or beginning to read supportive books again.
  • Learn about healthy self-care. Author Steve Austin has written an excellent book on self-care that you may want to check out.
  • Learn about your own emotional language, how you express emotions (both healthy and not).
  • Learn approaches to manage your difficult emotional states. Psychologists call this emotional regulation. For more on managing emotional states, click here.
  • Establish your own safety. Get support to end any abusive or unhealthy relationships.

Stage 2: This stage is about remembering and mourning your areas of broken trust. Remember that you can choose which areas to discuss, choose the timing of when you are ready to talk, and choose how and with whom you will share.

This is where you begin to get deeper into the layers of your story and uncover more of your emotional pain. Telling your story, talking about your pain is only part of your healing. Healing builds on healthy self-care and safety. It also involves taking the time to mourn any areas of broken trust.

Finding a safe relationship (ie: a good therapist) is crucial at this stage because you will need the safety and structure to thoroughly heal.

Therapy does not have to take years and years. Please know that you do not have to be tortured by painful memories for years. For more, see this article by 1in6.

Stage 3: Reconnect with people, your life, and other meaningful activities. 

This stage is about creating new connections in your life. You may not change any relationships, but you learn to approach them with a different perspective. Part of healing may mean that you approach your life with a new sense of purpose (for example, to support other survivors in their recovery).

Safety is the foundation of trust. Mourning will help you to express your pain and regain a sense of personal empowerment. Reconnection will help you to re-establish a trusting perspective in your life.

A better life awaits you. You don’t have to go through life with your DEFCON Radar on high all of the time, and rebuilding your life does not need to take a lifetime.

If you are interested in learning more about trauma and rebuilding trust in your life, I highly recommend the website by Trauma-Recovery.

If you like this piece, you will want to read Your Recovery Wants to be Fantastic. Are You Ready for it? and How to Find the Power to Heal from Trauma and Abuse.


I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing.

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Keep it Real

Photo by Rob Faulkner

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