Do you often feel numb and disconnected from others? Or have you ever struggled with feelings and flashbacks of memories that constantly keep coming back to “haunt you”? Do you constantly find yourself stuck in a series of abusive relationships where you cannot figure out what went wrong? If yes, chances are that you are dealing with unhealed trauma.
The American Psychological Association describes trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster”, which is usually immediately followed by shock and denial. However, a person can be traumatized after the occurrence of any inordinately stressful or overwhelming event. Any experience that is physically, mentally or emotionally threatening and damaging can leave a person traumatized. Experiences like living in a war zone, acts of terrorism, being attacked, being bullied or harassed, struggling with a life-threatening disease, losing a loved one to death, getting divorced, being betrayed, breaking up a meaningful relationship, being abused whether sexually, psychologically or physically etc. can traumatize a person. A person might experience trauma immediately following the event whereas someone else might continue to deal with its symptoms in the longer run.
Trauma is of three types –
- Acute trauma – This usually occurs after a single traumatic event. As the name suggests, acute trauma doesn’t last for much longer. A person may experience acute trauma after losing a loved one to death, a serious accident or an injury.
- Chronic trauma – This happens when a person is exposed to multiple distressing experiences for a prolonged period of time. Events such as being constantly bullied, domestic violence, living in a war zone, having a long-term illness, repeated sexual assault can lead to a person developing chronic trauma. In cases of abuse, it shows a behaviour pattern of the perpetrator who is usually someone close to the person being traumatized. Sometimes, when acute trauma is left untreated it leads to chronic trauma.
- Complex trauma – While chronic trauma can be explained as a couple of awful experiences, complex trauma happens when a person has spent most of their life living with lots of awful experiences happening to them. Constant childhood neglect and abuse, living in high-conflict scary neighbourhoods or living in poverty can be reasons for a person to develop complex trauma.
Sometimes, people develop secondary trauma which is a result of being close to someone else who is going through a traumatic experience.
Trauma occurs as a normal response to abnormal happenings.
The effect of trauma is multi-fold. It affects the person’s personality, characteristics, existing health conditions, daily life functioning, relationships, and the way they handle their emotions. Everybody reacts differently to traumatic events. Responses to traumatic events can be psychological and/or physical.
Emotional and psychological responses can look like – anger, irritability, anxiety, hopelessness, sadness, confusion, shame, guilt, numbness, feeling disconnected, self-blame, difficulty in concentrating, disbelief, fear, denial etc. People often experience outbursts of anger or crying, nightmares etc.
Physical responses to trauma can look like – sweating heavily, racing heart, digestive problems, inability to sleep, nausea, fatigue, being in a constant state of alertness, looking out for potential threats or dangers etc.
The experience of dealing with trauma is subjective to everyone. For some people, who are able to process their emotions and make sense of the terrible occurrence, trauma fades away gradually but some people find it difficult to move on. When trauma is not treated timely or left untreated, it can cause further damage to a person’s psychological health. While it is a normal response to be emotionally disturbed by a traumatic event, many people develop post-traumatic stress disorder when they are unable to make sense of the event. Many of us go through traumatic experiences but not many heal from them. They often remain stuck in psychological shock and struggle with difficult emotions.
“How do I know I have unhealed trauma?”
These overwhelming and terrifying traumatic experiences of the past, leave us with difficult emotions to deal with. If we don’t process these emotions, we keep on carrying the baggage that not only affects us emotionally but also shows up in our behaviour, relationships, thought patterns, recurring issues etc.
Unhealed trauma may look like –
- Having low self-esteem – Experiencing trauma can substantially mess with our self-esteem. Trauma caused by childhood neglect, abuse or abandonment, bullying at school, and lack of appreciation, love and care especially at the hands of a loved one or friends may leave you with a shattered or poor self-image. Feelings of being unworthy, not liking oneself, struggling to feel good etc. can all be a cause of unhealed trauma at the root.
- Resisting positive change – If you are someone who feels that you don’t deserve to be happy or don’t deserve the good that life gives you, you are probably suffering from unhealed trauma. When positive and good experiences induce a feeling of shame or guilt in you, or when you resist any good experience, person or relationship, it might be a sign of untreated trauma. Unhealed trauma often makes us feel unworthy or suspicious of positive experiences. Rather, we become comfortable with rejection, abandonment and abuse and feel that these are the things that we actually deserve.
- Wanting to control everything – While a little future planning can be a good thing to do but trying to manage every little thing about your life and future shows an excessive need to be in control and a possibility of avoiding the feeling of helplessness. If you get frustrated when things don’t happen as you planned, there is a chance that you have unhealed trauma from an experience that broke your trust and left you feeling vulnerable. Trying to control every experience or person points out a lack of trust within oneself and the world.
- Having a strong fear of failure – We all have been in a state when we were afraid to fail but having a persistent and a strong fear of failure is unhealthy. Traumatic events that left us with a lack of belief in our abilities often makes a person extremely fearful of failing.
- Having strong fear of success – Traumatic experiences liked being abandoned as a child or losing a loved one often result in the person sabotaging their own success. This is similar to resisting a positive change. People start holding themselves back from succeeding or getting what they want because they fear that they don’t deserve it or wouldn’t know what to do with it once they get it.
- Having unhealthy and troubled relationships – If you constantly land yourself in abusive or toxic relationships that look and feel similar, there is a chance that you have unhealed trauma from childhood. Perhaps you witnessed emotional or physical abuse as a child or witnessed your parents fighting which left you with feelings of insecurity and an inability to form healthy attachments.
- You harm others and yourself – Experiencing trauma leaves us with difficult emotions to deal with. Being emotionally volatile, losing temper very often and quite easily, indulging in self-harm like substance abuse, being overly sensitive, abusing others or accepting abuse, avoiding others and isolating self instead of dealing with a problem, are all signs of unaddressed issues and unhealed trauma.
- Trouble asking for help – Sometimes traumatic experiences teach us to suffer in silence. This is unhealthy as people fear rejection or being seen as weak. They prefer to deal with difficulties on their own rather than seeking help.
Almost all of us experience traumatic events at some point in our lives. Many are able to deal with and overcome it but many are not. We feel scared to be seen as broken and weak to seek help. But there is nothing to be ashamed of. Remember that everyone experiences and responds to trauma differently. Work on accepting, loving and healing all parts of you, the positives along with the challenges, because everyone deserves to heal!
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