As a therapist and a life coach, I know that we all experience big, life-changing emotional pain eventually. Whether you’re grieving the death of a loved one, feeling heartbreak after a breakup or divorce, or grappling with the loss of a cherished dream, these experiences require emotional healing. Learning about the seven stages of emotional healing can help you understand where you are in your healing journey, and what you need to do to reclaim your inner peace and continue moving forward.
What Are the Seven Stages of Emotional Healing?
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to emotional healing, just like there is no “right” way to grieve after loss. But in my experience, emotional healing happens in seven stages: awareness, acceptance, processing, release, growth, integration, and transformation. We don’t move through these stages in a straight line, but we do pass through them all eventually on the path to healing.
Here’s what happens at each stage:
The first step in emotional healing is recognizing that you are experiencing pain, distress, or grief. At this stage, you are acknowledging the existence of your feelings and their impact on your wellbeing. Awareness is your emotional guidance system bringing your inner struggles into focus, giving you a starting point for healing.
Acceptance means embracing your emotions without judgment or resistance. It requires allowing yourself to feel what you feel, no matter how uncomfortable or painful those emotions might be. Acceptance is a crucial step in emotional healing, because when we resist our feelings, they tend to persist for longer than necessary.
Processing your emotions means engaging with them consciously and actively. This stage involves exploring the root causes of your distress, including any unresolved issues or past traumas. You can process your emotions through self-reflection, journaling, therapy, or conversations with trusted friends. Note that there is a difference between healthy processing and rumination. More on that later.
Releasing your emotions means letting go of past experiences, pent-up feelings and all of the energy they consume. This stage may involve expressing your feelings in a healthy and constructive manner, helping you free yourself from emotional burdens and make space for healing.
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Difficult, painful events change us, but not necessarily for the worse. There is a phenomenon called “post-traumatic growth,” which means people who have passed through the seven stages of emotional healing often emerge with new wisdom, strength, and meaning that they didn’t have before. Emotional growth empowers you to make positive changes in your life based on what this difficult experience has taught you.
At this stage of emotional healing, you begin integrating the experience, your feelings, and the lessons learned into your daily life. For example, if you are grieving after the loss of a loved one, you may become more intentional about how you spend your time with the people who matter the most to you. Or, if you’re healing from a breakup or divorce, you may begin to show up differently in new relationships based on what you learned in your last relationship.
Transformation represents the final stage of emotional healing, where you emerge from your experiences as a stronger, more resilient person. This transformation is a fundamental shift in your emotional and mental outlook, which leads to a more adaptive approach to life. You feel healed and ready to move forward, more confident in your ability to get through hard times and maintain your wellbeing.
Is It Possible to Get “Stuck” at a Stage of Emotional Healing?
As I’m sure you know if you are currently on a healing journey of your own, these stages don’t always progress in a smooth, linear fashion. Sometimes it feels like you are getting stuck at one stage of healing or another, or even like you’re moving backwards. This is a normal part of the healing process, but if you feel like you are fighting a losing battle with your feelings every day, that can be a sign that you would benefit from support.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Jill Belote Taylor, emotions are supposed to be temporary experiences, only lasting about 90 seconds — unless you feed them. Our emotions take on a life of their own when we fuel them by ruminating, catastrophizing about the future, or beating ourselves up for past mistakes. These mental habits create painful thought loops that keep you feeling stuck rather than moving forward. If you’ve ever felt like you couldn’t stop thinking about your ex after a terrible breakup, you know what I mean. Working with a good therapist can help you get unstuck so you can start feeling better.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re feeling stuck in your healing process:
- What is feeling unresolved for me?
- Is there something that I need to communicate to someone to move forward?
- Is there a part of my experience that I have been denying?
- What thoughts, feelings, and body sensations arise when I am feeling stuck?
- Am I having unrealistic expectations for how quickly my healing process should go?
- Do I need assistance in discovering how to move forward?
How to Move Forward On Your Healing Journey
So, you know that emotional healing involves feeling and thinking. But what can you actually DO to help yourself move forward in your healing process? These are some of the action steps I share with my clients:
- Have Empathy for Yourself
Everyone needs emotional healing at some point in their lives, so the fact that you are currently hurting just means that you’re human. It’s important to treat yourself with compassion, because judging your feelings will keep you stuck. For example, if you feel ashamed about feeling sad about a breakup, you will probably resist your sadness rather than feeling it in the way you need to in order for it to resolve. But if you treat yourself with empathy, validate your feelings, and engage in emotional self-care, that will help you move forward.
- Move Through Your Feelings
When you’re in pain, it’s natural to try to shut your feelings down, deny your experience, or do things that numb or remove you from the pain you feel. Unfortunately, these avoidant coping strategies do not yield long term emotional healing. So, what can you do instead? Engage in mindfulness about your inner experience. Practice noticing your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations without judging or trying to change them. You can try this on your own by simply naming these things for yourself, through guided meditation or journaling, discussing your internal experience with a loved one, or with help from a therapist who is trained in mindfulness.
- Engage in Supportive Coping
We can’t just stop engaging in unhelpful coping strategies. We need to replace them with something better, much like Indiana Jones replaces a golden idol with a sandbag to prevent the cave from collapsing. Choose supportive coping mechanisms instead. For example, you may benefit from taking a walk, engaging in your hobbies, spending time with friends and family, going to the gym, or reorganizing your space. Any positive activity that helps you regulate your emotions rather than avoiding them can be a supportive coping mechanism.
- Regulate Your Emotions
Help yourself manage your emotions in a way that brings you back to your original state and empowers you to choose your actions. Evidence-based ways to regulate your emotions are: timed breathing (inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, exhaling for 8 seconds), progressive muscle relaxation, cooling your body down with an ice cube, cold water, or cold towel, engaging in mindfulness, snuggling a pet, and more. Building a tool box for yourself of emotional regulation skills that are effective for you can help you feel your feelings and move through them in a way that leads to emotional healing.
Support with the Seven Stages of Emotional Healing
I hope this article helped you understand the stages of emotional healing and how you can move through them and reclaim your inner peace. If you would like my support along your healing journey, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.