You might be suffering
from a trauma (and not know it)
You’re probably thinking that there’s no possible way you have a trauma. That traumatization is something that happens to a soldier or a rape victim, not an ordinary person like yourself. Please hear me out, because it might change your life (for the better).
Has anyone ever given you the advice to ‘just suck it up and move on’? I bet they have. I bet you’ve also immediately thought ‘If it were that easy, don’t you think I would've done that a long time ago?’ With the rise in popularity of self-help books, people have started to glorify the idea of not (pretending to) giving a damn, ignoring all of the bad stuff and keep on moving forward, as if it’s exclusively a rational process. But, what if you want to move on but can’t? What if a trauma is preventing you from moving on?
Yes, soldiers and rape victims generally are trauma victims, but traumatization is not something that is exclusive to having fought in a war or having been sexually violated. Actually, anything that damages your mind as a result of something severely distressing can be labelled as traumatic. Just to name a few examples:
- Abusive relationships
- Distant, unresponsive and/or rejecting parents or caregivers
- Having had no protection as a child
- Loss of a loved one
- Physical assault
- (Car) Accidents
Please be aware that in certain cases, even witnessing someone else be the recipient of something horrible can cause traumatization.
Exactly because the term trauma conjures up images of a veteran plagued by flashbacks from the war, or of a rape victim haunted by unspeakable experiences of the past, people won’t easily ascribe the term to their own life. Even if they’ve experienced something horrible, if people feel it’s not on par with war or rape in terms of severity or intensity, they won’t label their experience as traumatic. Obviously there’s a really big difference between being a rape victim and being a victim of harassment. However, they also have something in common: in both cases there’s a need of resolving what happened in the past.
Please note that this doesn’t take anything away from the severity of their horrible experiences in the cases of war or rape. It’s not meant to equate these traumatic experiences with less severe ones. It’s solely meant to illustrate that trauma exists on a spectrum, with severe traumatic experiences on one side and minor ones on the other side.
Lots of people try to simply ignore their trauma in the hopes of it going away by itself, sometimes by trying to dull it with drugs and/or poring copious amounts of alcohol over it. It has sort of worked for you so far, right? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but even though it might prove to be a short term solution, in the long term it will do you more harm than good. It turns out that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Why?
- First of all, trauma changes your brain on a fundamental level. It changes the way you perceive possible threats. For example, it’s very common for traumatized people to become hypervigilant. To have this feeling of continuous anxiousness. A feeling of having to have your guard up at all times, as some kind of (futile) attempt to lessen the impact in case something bad happens. This obviously has an enormous impact on your day-to-day functioning and will taint pretty much all of your future experiences.
- Secondly, having a trauma wrecks your body and will make you prone to both mental and physical problems.
Anyway, more on this later. Let’s first discover what a trauma really is.
What is trauma?
In normal everyday life you experience lots of things. After having experienced something memorable, this memory is not immediately saved onto your mind’s hard drive in its current form. The memory will undergo a whole process of integration and reinterpretation before it’s securely integrated with your other memories and stored in your mind.
When you’ve experienced something so stressful your mind cannot cope with it or can’t integrate the emotions that come with it, this process runs into an error. Instead of integrating the experience with the rest of memories, your mind is forced to split off and fragment this traumatic experience. Where a normal memory will undergo a process of integration and reinterpretation before it's stored, a traumatic memory is saved ‘as is,’ in its raw, unprocessed and fixed form. In psychological terms this is called dissociation. Although dissociation covers a wide array of experiences and comes in many gradations (usually depending on how severe the traumatic experience is), all forms of dissociation involve some kind detachment from reality. Your mind has effectively detached itself from the reality of the traumatic experience. This makes dissociation is the essence of a trauma.
Since your mind hasn’t been able to properly process and integrate the traumatic memory and saved it as a whole somewhere in your memory bank, it will keep on intruding in your normal day-to-day life in some way. During such an intrusion into the present, a generous amount of stress hormones will course through your body, along with the accompanying physical sensations (profusely sweating, increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, etc.).
How do people respond to trauma?
Not everyone will respond to their traumatic experience in the same manner. There are, however, some common manifestations of dissociation:
Flashbacks & post traumatic nightmares
These are involuntary memories which pretty much just happen without any conscious attempt to let them happen on your side. Without having explicitly thought about and recalled your traumatic experience, the memory pretty much just enters your awareness as a freight train headed directly towards you, often triggered by a certain cue in your environment which is somehow associated with your trauma.
Flashbacks will feel incredibly vivid and intense, to the degree that it’s feels like you’re re-experiencing or reliving elements of your traumatic experience. These flashbacks usually won’t follow the same story-line as what took place back then (with a start, middle and end), but take the form of dissociated elements and fragments of what happened. You’re effectively bombarded with images, sounds, and physical sensations, accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of terror and helplessness. You’re more or less catapulted into hell. Note: this doesn't necessarily mean you're imaginging yourself to be back in the past when you got traumatized, but rather that things are happening right now in the presence.
What makes things even worse is that it’s not just horrible during these events, it’s generally far from pleasant afterwards. A lot of people have found their normal life to become less and less compelling due to their traumatization. Once you can’t find any joy in normal day-to-day life, depression is often lurking around the corner.
These flashbacks can also take the form of nightmares, which are far more intense than normal dreams. During post traumatic nightmares you will be reliving elements or fragments of your traumatic experience, which will usually end in you waking up with a very intense negative emotion (fear, anger, sadness). There are even mentions of reliving all of your traumatic experience (called replicative nightmares).
Some people will react to trauma by going emotionally numb, which is a specific form of dissociation. Trauma usually includes a component of helplessness, which means that you wanted to escape during what happened, but for some reason you couldn't. People suffering from depersonalization, however, have essentially given up on trying to escape. They have dissociated their fear, which results in psychological numbing. Depersonalization will make you feel… nothing (aside from momentary bursts of rage or shame). It’s as if all the joy has been sucked out of you by a Dementor out of the Harry Potter books. In practice, this will also mean that many people who suffer from depersonalization will feel disconnected from themselves. A feeling of not feeling like yourself anymore. This can take several different forms. For example, some people might experience a sort of robot-like feeling. Others have mentioned experiencing a feeling of observing themselves.
Not only is it horrible to suffer from depersonalization itself, it’s also very easy to start feeling like a monster because of it. If you’re not feeling any emotion during moments where you think that should feel something, it is very easy to start feeling like a monster. For example, not feeling anything at your son or daughter’s birthday will let you feel as if you don’t belong to the human race. You might rationally know that you love someone, but you simply cannot feel it.
Where depersonalization concerns the feeling of unreality within yourself, derealization is a similar feeling but directed towards the outside world. When you’re suffering from derealization, the world will become vague (for the lack of a better word). It will feel as if the world lacks emotional coloring, devoid of any spontaneity and depth. For some people it might actually feel like everything is dream-like, almost like everything is covered by a fog or a thick veil. Since there’s a lot of overlap between derealization and depersonalization, most professionals don’t consider them to be separate constructs.
When suffering from dissociative amnesia, you can’t remember what happened during your traumatic experience. Your mind has effectively blocked out the horrors which occurred back then. These memories aren’t actually lost, they’re buried deep down inside. You just don’t have any conscious access to them. However, something in your surroundings might trigger these memories. Since you cannot recall what happened back them, being triggered may feel like it comes out of the blue. Without any prior warning, whatever happened might all of a sudden rush back into the present.
Accompanied by feelings of...
Dissociation is usually not the only thing you’re suffering from when you’ve been traumatized. It is very often accompanied by (among other things):
- Self-esteem taking a dive
- A feeling of profound emptiness
- Suicidal tendencies
As you can imagine, these effects can have an immense impact on your day-to-day life. It’s not a stretch to imagine for these post traumatic effects to contaminate almost everything you’ll experience in the future, as they directly influence how you function and/or how you respond to things. It’s not unheard of for even the most resilient people to become (temporarily) sidelined. That’s why you should take action as soon as possible once you've recognized yourself to have been traumatized.
Other responses to trauma
Aside from the previously listed responses, there might very likely be other trauma related responses. Some of these you probably wouldn’t naturally have connected to your trauma. The exact response obviously depends on the person and the specific traumatic experience. For example, some people might:
- Suffer from a constant feeling of anxiousness or get triggered by the slightest unexpected noise or movement. In his New York Times bestseller 'Your body keeps the score' (see below), psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk (MD) makes the great analogy of being like an animal in a thunderstorm: reacting to everything that triggers your trauma with the release of stress hormones. Your body thinks you're in danger; constantly on edge, trying to anticipate the next sudden flash of lightning and thunderous roar. To help you deal with the resulting feelings your physician might put you on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI’s) like Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Cymbalta, or Paxil. These will fight the symptoms, which can prove immensely helpful by getting you through the day. Although they'll lift a heavy burden of off your shoulders, they won’t let you resolve your traumatized past.
- Become hypersexual, while others will effectively become celibate as they shudder at the thought of ever having sex again.
- Try gain as much control over a certain domain of their life. It’s very common to become a ‘control freak’ in one way or another. Since trauma usually involves an element of helplessness, creating an illusion of control will provide a way to protect themselves. For the most part, this is a subconscious process. For example, it’s common to become obsessed with weightlifting.
- Search for something which gets the adrenaline pumping. For example, reckless driving, extreme sports, etc.
- Suffer from a lack of imagination. Trauma affects people’s imagination, which prevents people from envisioning and fantasizing about new possibilities (in life). This will leave them goalless and without hope for a better future.
Although there are many possible post traumatic responses, they’re all irrational, generally involuntary and very often buried under a thick layer of shame. This will force many people to build their life around it, whether they're consciously aware of it or not.
Social problems – Ending up alone
Aside from the many physical and mental problems, being traumatized will also potentially cause a social problem: social isolation. To reiterate, suffering from a trauma forces you to organize your life around it, as it influences how your function daily as well as how you respond to things. It has an iron grip on your life. Sadly, for a lot of traumatized people this means socially isolating themselves. Social isolation in itself is horrible, but for a trauma sufferer this also means that he or she is suffering alone. This will start to further chip away at many of life’s essentials: a motivation to pursue goals, having a sense of self, having a clear identity, feeling a sense of purpose, etc. In short, it will shut you down completely.
For some, this social isolation will be a conscious process. Being traumatized will make it incredibly hard for them to relate to non-traumatized people. When your friends’ biggest problems involve their floundering performance on their Tinder-dates, it’s very difficult to relate to them when you are barely scraping by and get through the day. This potentially makes increasingly difficult to maintain friendships or relationships with non-traumatized people. If maintaining your friendships is too energy-consuming for you in relation to what you get out of them, it’s an easy choice to drop them and channel your energy towards surviving instead.
Conversely, the very nature of trauma will make it hard for non-traumatized people to relate to traumatized people, which makes them want to leave the friendship/relationship. Trauma prevents others from understanding you and your struggle in the sense that trauma actually has an impact on the parts of the brain which are responsible for speech. It will make it hard for you to actually articulate what happened. Couple this with the idea that the dissociated memories are usually fragmented rather than a coherent story, and you will get a situation which is very hard to put into words and convey to others.
Social isolation isn't exclusively a conscious process, there’s usually also a subconscious component to it. Sometimes it’s not clear that certain feelings can be linked to your trauma, which can confuse the hell out of everyone involved. Let’s say that your partner says something which doesn’t sit right with you. You feel a build-up of rage inside and unleash it by yelling at your confused and probably startled better half. You might think that your partner did something wrong, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten angry in the first place. Well.. It might very well be that the reason for your sudden eruption might be found in your trauma. It's very possible that something in your partner’s behavior made you feel helpless, which your mind associated with the feeling of helplessness you felt during your traumatic experience and therefore tried to protect itself by making you explode with anger. If this happens frequently, you will likely scare away people close to you.
Forming new friendships or relationships is also very unlikely, because in order to develop either you’ll have be able to (temporarily) let your guard down. That's because letting yourself be vulnerable and opening yourself up to someone else is one of the most essential ingredients of a deep relationship. Opening up to someone about your weaknesses and vulnerabilities inspires trust in the other, which is the foundation of a relationship. Since traumatized people have had their trust eroded and as a consequence have turned hypervigilant, letting their guards down is pretty much their Kryptonite.
Physical problems -
Trauma wrecks your body
The mental hit your brain takes during a traumatic experience will also have physical consequences. Especially in the long run this can have a very corrosive effect on your life. To understand why, we have to have a general idea of what happens when you find yourself in a very stressful situation.
When something really stressful happens, your brain (the amygdala to be precise) will sound the alarm and release a cocktail of stress hormones. These stress hormones will cause your body to go into what is known as a ‘fight or flight mode,’ which encompasses a slew of physiological changes which are all geared towards your survival. Simply said, this means that your body prepares you to go ‘all in’ and act out with full force through either fighting your way out of the situation or running like hell. In ancient times this fight or flight mode helped us survive by either fighting or fleeing, however, in modern times we rarely find ourselves in life and death situations for which we need to have this mode equipped.
This fight or flight mode also plays a big role in trauma. As you’ve read, traumatic memories will force you to relive fragments of your traumatic experiences through various manners. Let’s say that your mind has associated a certain image, sound, smell or situation with your traumatic experience. In your current daily life, when you run into an image, sound, smell or situation that closely resembles the one associated with your traumatic memory, your mind will get triggered because it thinks you’re in danger again (like back then). When something like that occurs, your amygdala will sound the alarm and your body will enter fight or flight mode.
In your traumatized situation, however, this means that a disproportional amount of stress hormones are released (more than under normal stressful circumstances). For non-traumatized people,
Under normal circumstances, when the danger is gone your body will exit the fight or flight mode, the stress hormones will dissipate and your hormone system will return to an equilibrium. However, when you suffer from a trauma, these stress hormones take much longer to dissipate and for your body to balance itself out. In the long run this will not only let your mind suffer immensely, as every time you’re reliving your trauma it’s engraved deeper into your mind, it will also wreak havoc on your body. Having a constantly elevated amount of stress hormones running through your system is bound to have physical consequences. It’s no wonder that as a result of this, people have complained about:
- (stress) headaches
- muscle aches
- bowel problems
- problems with sexual functions
- irrational behaviors
Aside from these problems, actively repressing or ignoring your trauma might also come with their own set of physical problems. People have been known to suffer from a variety of issues, among which are:
- chronic fatigue
- autoimmune diseases
As is apparent, it’s very important to seek help if you suffer from a trauma. As you’re going to read in the next part, ignoring your trauma is not just ineffective, ultimately you will be worse off.
What happens if you try to ignore your trauma?
A common response is to try to knowingly ignore the existence of your trauma, usually due to one (or all) of the following reasons:
- Due to a lack of energy, because dealing with the consequences of having a trauma takes enormous amounts of effort. If your whole life is organized around the effects of your trauma, there’s not a whole lot of resources (time/energy) to allocate to resolving your trauma. For example, if you’re suffering from a continuous feeling of anxiousness, you’ll probably feel exhausted most of the time. Just trying to get through the day is your main priority, and you don’t have the energy to pile something on top of that.
- As a coping mechanism, because you want to be able to function as a human being. You don’t have the luxury of lifting the lid of Pandora’s Box, because you don’t know what will come out. This means that there’s a chance that whatever comes out will render you immobile on a certain level (career, relationship, school, etc.), which is something you can’t permit from happening at this point in your life.
- Due to feeling that admitting the existence of your trauma is equal to admitting defeat. You want to leave whatever happened in the past, and not acknowledging your trauma is one way to do it. You feel that you’re better than what happened to you and recognizing your traumatic experience feels like you’re letting the others win.
If you recognize yourself in one (or all) of these reasons, let me tell you the following: it’s absolutely understandable. Please don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s incredibly hard to focus your attention to resolving your issues if you’re too preoccupied with keeping it together. We have nothing but admiration for you and the war you’re involuntarily waging with yourself every single day. For some of us, shutting down or numbing ourselves to the pain might mean the difference between being able to survive/function and shutting down entirely. Sometimes you simply have to do something to control the chaos inside, especially if you suffer from a sensory overload pretty much every single day. But please know that at some point you will have to address your trauma, because ignoring it will do you more harm than good. Ignoring or actively repressing feelings won’t solve anything. On the contrary, as you’ve read, it will make you prone to an amalgamation of problems. Aside from that, the best result attainable is that you get through another day. The most optimal outcome will be breaking even, keeping the status quo intact. There’s no winning in this situation, only not-losing.
There’s another important reason for not ignoring your trauma: you would also be filtering out good things. It’s very understandable that you’d want to internally lock up the part of yourself which is the host to so much pain and hurt. However, you cannot selectively mute only the bad parts and cherry pick the good parts. Once you shut down, you will shut down everything, including your playful, innocent, creative, loving and sensitive parts of yourself.
Not being aware of your trauma
There’s also a possibility of unknowingly ignoring your trauma. If you’re not aware of having been traumatized in the first place, you won't consciously be taking steps to resolve it. Sadly, in such a situation you’ll still be confronted with the effects of your trauma. As you’ve read before, these will be expressed through a physical illness, mental health problem, and/or social problem. However, since you’re not aware of traumatization being the cause of these, the only option is to address the post-traumatic symptoms without addressing the underlying cause. This gives rise to the illusion of symptoms themselves being the source of your problems. That’s why it’s so incredibly important to check this article for any red flags. If you recognize yourself or your situation in what we’ve described here, please seek help. Resolving your past will let you get free of your suffering in a way that is hard to otherwise imagine you getting free of.
Just move on?
A message to everyone who recognizes him or herself in the above, please ignore all the motivational nonsense advice you run into on social media. Motivational advice might be nice when starting from a non-trauma position, but it won't let you heal from your trauma. When you suffer from a trauma you might want to move on, your body might not let you. Your friends and family might also pitch in with well meant advice, but in all likelihood it's probably not going to be the best advice for your specific situation. Like entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes:
“Because they (people) can’t know everything about you and your unique situation, they’ll give advice that’s really just a reflection of their own current situation.”
Since we’re living in the age of self-help books, in which pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is glorified and being stuck is seen as you being lazy and unmotivated, it’s very likely that your friends and family will echo similar advice. This advice usually implies that regardless of the situation, moving on can be accomplished through a mindset change or rational reasoning alone, which is factually untrue. When you’re traumatized, being stuck is not a rational decision, it’s a default setting. Taking this poisonous advice to heart will not only will this cause needless suffering on your part, it will also leave you to wonder if there’s either something fundamentally wrong with you, or if you’re downright permanently unfixable; broken beyond repair. I mean, if everyone besides seems to be able to pull it off, that’s the only logical conclusion, right?
Please disregard their (well meant) advice and talk to a professional therapist, because therapy is the only real way to heal from traumatization. Mind you, real therapy, by a certified clinician, not some kind of alternative therapy.
Listen, I know that some of you don't want to visit a therapist, but hear me out. Resolving these traumatic experiences in your past will mean that you'll have to revisit them in some way. There’s simply no way around it. You could try to do that on your own, but chances are that you end up doing more damage than good. In your situation, catharsis can prove to be dangerous. There's a very real chance of just engraving these traumatic events deeper into your mind. Therapy will help you revisit these traumatic experiences while being in a safe environment and firmly rooted into the present. With the help of a professional you'll be able to stay calm and safe, while resolving these issues. Will all of the pain and hurt will be erased through therapy? No, but it will make things manageable and bearable.
For some people the mere knowledge of having a trauma might give them some peace of mind, because they now have an explanation for their sometimes irrational behavior and emotions. Knowing that how you’re feeling is normal due to your circumstances can be very liberating. Sadly, it won’t be enough. Your body is still stuck in its traumatized (hypervigilant) mode. For real healing to occur, you will need to teach it that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present once more, which is where the therapist comes into play. So, please ignore all the ignorant advice about 'thinking yourself better,' instead choose yourself by truly healing with the help of a professional.
"I used to think that I was weak for needing help. I realize now that my weakness was never getting it." - Humans of New York
Want to read more on trauma?
This is the very best book we've read on the topic of trauma (New York Times bestseller). It's written for a lay audience, it's chock-full of information about different kinds of traumas, and contains great advice on how to heal from them. It's devoid from the motivational b.s. we run into so often. What's especially great is that it's written by a leading psychiatrist (MD) specialized in trauma, drawing on more than 30 years of experience.