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Trauma Therapy Change Triangle

The Power of the Change Triangle in Trauma Recovery

Trauma recovery is a complex, deeply personal process that requires not just time, but the right tools and approaches to help individuals heal and move forward. One such tool that has gained recognition in the field of trauma therapy is the Change Triangle. This model, made popular by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, and featured in her book “It’s Not Always Depression” serves as a map to help understand and manage overwhelming emotions associated with trauma. By focusing on emotional regulation through the Change Triangle, individuals can engage more deeply with their recovery process and promote lasting healing.

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What is the Change Triangle?

The Change Triangle is a practical framework designed to help individuals identify, experience, and manage their emotions effectively. The corners of the triangle represent three different experiential states: core emotions, inhibitory emotions, and defenses. The ultimate goal is to navigate from the inhibitory emotions and defenses towards the openhearted state of core emotions and authentic self.

Core Emotions

These are the hard-wired, physiological responses to the environment, such as joy, anger, sadness, fear, excitement, disgust, and sexual excitement. In the context of trauma, these emotions can often be intense and painful, yet acknowledging them is crucial for healing.

Inhibitory Emotions

These emotions, including guilt, shame, and anxiety, act as internal brakes. They typically arise to manage or suppress core emotions that might feel too dangerous or overwhelming to express.


Defenses are anything people do to avoid feeling emotional discomfort. Common defenses include denial, dissociation, numbing, and intellectualization. While these can provide short-term relief, they often hinder long-term recovery by preventing the processing of potentially painful or intense, but necessary emotions.

woman with paper "x" on her hand. an illustration of having defenses up.
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Navigating the Change Triangle in Trauma Recovery

Using the Change Triangle involves moving down the triangle, from defenses through inhibitory emotions, to finally connect with core emotions. This movement is pivotal in trauma recovery as it encourages acknowledging and expressing these emotions in a safe environment, which is crucial for healing.

Step 1: Identifying Defenses

The first step in navigating the Change Triangle is recognizing one’s own defenses. This might involve noticing when one is rationalizing away hurt or anger, dissociating from emotions, or engaging in addictive behaviors to avoid facing painful feelings.

Step 2: Acknowledging Inhibitory Emotions

After recognizing and setting aside defenses, the focus shifts to understanding the inhibitory emotions that may be at play. This often requires examining the feelings of shame, guilt, or anxiety that come up when thinking about engaging with more painful core emotions.

Step 3: Connecting with Core Emotions

The final and most crucial step is to allow oneself to feel the core emotions. This can be challenging, especially if these emotions have been suppressed for a long time. It often requires the support of a therapist or a safe person who can help hold space while these feelings are explored and expressed.

Benefits of the Change Triangle

The Change Triangle does not only help in understanding one’s emotional landscape but also promotes emotional health by teaching skills to better manage and respond to feelings. These skills include:

Emotional Awareness

Becoming more aware of one’s emotional state and understanding the source of emotions.

Regulation Skills

Learning how to calm oneself when emotions become overwhelming.

Transformative Healing

Facilitating a deeper connection with oneself, creating meaning out of challenging experiences; leading to a more coherent sense of identity and increased resilience.

The Change Triangle offers a compelling framework for those recovering from trauma, providing a clear, structured way to work through complex emotions. It emphasizes the importance of facing rather than avoiding feelings, and in doing so, it opens up a pathway to true recovery. For many, navigating this model with the support of a therapist can lead to transformative change and a renewed sense of peace and authenticity.

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Sarah’s Change Triangle

Let’s examine how the Change Triangle can be applied in a real-life scenario through the journey of Sarah, a fictional character whose experiences mirror those of many trauma survivors.

Initial State: Encountering Defenses

Sarah experienced emotional abuse in her childhood. For years, she used humor as a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with her pain. Whenever conversations veered close to her past experiences or feelings, she would deflect with a joke, sarcasm, or change the subject entirely. Recognizing these behaviors as defenses was Sarah’s first step in her therapeutic process.

Identifying Inhibitory Emotions

With the help of her therapist, Sarah began to peel back the layers of her defenses to confront the inhibitory emotions beneath — mainly, intense feelings of shame and guilt. She believed that acknowledging her hurt would mean admitting weakness, a notion instilled in her from a young age. In her sessions, she learned to recognize these feelings as common responses, not truths, which made them slightly easier to accept.

Engaging with Core Emotions

The heart of Sarah’s recovery lay in her ability to connect with her core emotions, particularly the sadness and fear buried under layers of humor and shame. This stage was the most challenging. During therapy, Sarah learned to sit with her sadness instead of immediately pushing it away. This process involved numerous sessions where she would gradually let down her guard, cry, express anger, and even delve into the fear of being emotionally overwhelmed.

Through guided exercises, including deep breathing and grounding techniques, Sarah was able to stay present with her emotions rather than revert to old patterns of avoidance. Her therapist provided a safe space where Sarah could express these feelings without judgment, helping her to understand that these responses were normal and valid reactions to her past experiences.

The Role of the Therapist in Sarah’s Journey

Sarah’s therapist played an essential role in guiding her through the Change Triangle. This included helping Sarah identify when she was using humor as a defense, gently confronting her when she slipped into shame or guilt, and supporting her as she faced her core emotions. The therapeutic relationship was crucial in providing the consistency and safety Sarah needed to explore parts of her psyche that had been closed off for years.

Benefits Realized

Over time, as Sarah became more adept at navigating the Change Triangle, she reported feeling lighter and more authentic in her emotions. She began to engage more openly in her relationships and found that she no longer felt the need to use humor as a shield. She also noticed a decrease in her anxiety levels, which had been a constant inhibitory force in her life. The skills she developed in therapy, particularly around emotional regulation and awareness, empowered her to handle stressful situations more effectively.

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Sarah’s example illustrates the transformative power of the Change Triangle in trauma recovery. It shows how moving from defenses, through inhibitory emotions, and into core emotions can lead to a deeper understanding of oneself and foster genuine healing. For anyone struggling with unresolved trauma, this tool offers a hopeful pathway out of emotional pain and into a life marked by greater emotional freedom and authenticity.

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