Trauma is a psychological, physiological, and an emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. A traumatic experience is something that can happen once or is reoccurring. It is something you either experience firsthand, witness (seeing a car accident or watching your mother get abused) or from a connection to the victim (vicarious trauma).
Trauma is either ongoing (chronic) or has happened only once. Chronic trauma (complex trauma) is repetitive over a period of time and is within an interpersonal relationship — for example, child abuse or neglect. Acute trauma usually happens once or only a few times. For example, surviving a natural or humanmade disaster.
Trauma is on a continuum and is viewed subjectively at the age(s) of when the event(s) occurred. Trauma does not have to be under severe circumstances to have lifelong effects. You do not have to have been hit by someone, have harmed someone (by accident or act of war), or witnessed horrific events to experience the effects of trauma.
Unrecognized Signs of Trauma
There are multiple signs that you are experiencing (or had experienced) trauma. Some examples of unrecognized signs of trauma are: living with someone who is depressed, living with someone who uses substances, who has emotional control over you, or who guilts you into doing things you do not want to do. Living with a narcissist, emotional neglect in any form, living with someone who makes you feel like you are walking on eggshells all the time, witnessing caretakers (parents) fighting or one parent using you as leverage against another parent.
Being in a chronic traumatic situation doesn’t mean that you do not feel loved or that the person that harmed you doesn’t care about you. The feelings that bond us make it even more difficult for us to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma.
Symptoms of Trauma
Trauma survivors will have different degrees of symptoms but not have all of the symptoms. Think of symptoms on a scale of 0 -no symptoms or 1-10, 10 being the most severe. Write your scores down for each symptom to help give you a better idea of the extent of your trauma. Remember, trauma is subjective, so there is no magic scoring system. Now review your scores and write down your thoughts about your scores. Again, this is a subjective activity; there is no right or wrong, only what you feel.
- Persistent feelings of sadness and despair
- Major depression
- Sleep issues (insomnia)
- Nightmares or night terrors
- Specific triggers that set you off like smells and sounds
- Flashbacks (usually images)
- Intrusive distressing memories
- Unpredictable emotions
- Lack of control
- Impulsive behaviors (substance use and behavioral disorders)
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach issues, headaches, light headed, racing heart, tight chest, muscle pain, IBS, Fibromyalgia.
- Intense feelings of guilt, as if you are somehow responsible for the event
- A sense of shame, such as not being good enough (intrusive inner critic)
- Feelings of isolation (social anxiety), hopelessness, and helplessness
Lifelong Impact of Trauma
Victims of trauma develop defenses that become habitual behaviors to protect them from hurt and pain. Imagine that you are being hurt by people that are supposed to help and care for you. How can a child or a dependent live-in survive if they leave the situation? So instead, you develop parts of yourself that become survival protectors. Most of these protectors are the symptoms listed above that you scored yourself on.
These defenses, such as anger, control, depression, and anxiety, continue throughout your life even when we don’t need them anymore. You discover that what once protected you now causes severe distress, especially in social situations and interpersonal relationships. You use your protective defenses to evaluate interactions on how others engage with you, which can be inaccurate.
According to Dana (2018) “Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection. If unresolved, these early adaptive survival responses become habitual autonomic [central nervous system] patterns” (p. 3).
Neuroceptive (unaware) physiological reactions can also manifest throughout your life when traumatic experiences go untreated, are avoided, or go unprocessed. Trauma induced physiological reactions surface throughout your life in many different trajectories, including chronic pain, autoimmune diseases, digestive problems, and heart disease (stress).
If you are a victim of trauma, avoiding your symptoms does not work. It is crucial that you work with a mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of trauma. If you broke your leg, what would happen if you let it go untreated? Your mental wellbeing affects all areas of your life. Why wouldn’t you want to take good care of it?
Catherine G. Cleveland is and mental health counselor and owner of Cleveland Emotional Health. Catherine specializes in the treatment of trauma and chronic pain. For more information and to book an appointment go to: clevelandemotionalhealth.com.
Porges, S. W., & Dana, D. A. (2018). Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.