Living a Life with Unresolved Trauma — What Is a Trauma Response?
Some people spend their entire life holding onto moments of pain in their body and mind. These painful, repressed moments accumulate over time. Holding onto them becomes harder and harder to bear. This is life with unresolved trauma.
A trauma response is a pattern of emotion, thought, or behaviors that occur in response to unprocessed trauma. These responses are our nervous system’s way of trying to keep us safe from real or perceived threats. In dangerous situations, these behaviors are healthy and often lifesaving.
When traumatic experiences go unprocessed, they get stored and imprinted into the nervous system. As a result, we keep reliving those traumatic feelings over and over – essentially living in the past until they get addressed. Mental health disorders like PTSD, anxiety, and depression are often a byproduct of trauma.
Depending on a person’s individual experience with trauma, there are a number of different ways people react to it. Most of the time people assume trauma responses are big and obvious, but that’s not true. Many times, the effects of trauma are much more subtle, which is why they slip by under our radar.
Ways That Trauma Impacts Behavior
Trauma can cause you to remain in a state of hypervigilance, which has a profound effect on our everyday behavior. This will change the way we show up in relationships and most areas of our lives, including the way we show up for ourselves.
While we can’t go back and change the past, we can certainly recover from it. There are several ways to restore the nervous system and heal from trauma. Treatment of trauma is also possible with the support of a mental health professional. You can discover and move through past traumas once and for all. Check out our previous blog to learn more about how you can begin to heal through trauma.
Take a look below at just a few ways that trauma can impact behavior.
Sometimes we’re stuck in situations that are mostly out of our control. As a way to cope, you might disconnect yourself from what is happening. This is known as dissociation. Dissociation disconnects us from our thoughts, feelings, and the present moment.
Dissociation can range from mild to severe, and long-term dissociation can develop into a dissociative disorder. It’s often described as feeling like you are on autopilot. Below are some common ways someone might experience dissociation.
Feeling partially or completely numb
Having conversations and forgetting them immediately
Zoning out and trouble focusing
Ruminating about past events
Hearing things that aren’t there
Not recognizing familiar faces
Early childhood experiences can cause us to become hypervigilant to the needs of the people around us. During early years when you’re still learning how to navigate this world, you might have learned that you’re only worthy when you sacrifice your own needs for others. This develops an insecurity within our most important relationships and affects the way we show up in future ones.
People pleasing is an attempt at feeling safe within our relationships. Making everyone around you comfortable and happy can be seen as the cost of admission for the relationship. In order to keep the peace and appease others, you forfeit your own needs and boundaries. Some examples of people pleasing are:
Predicting someone’s reaction or emotion towards something
Struggling to say “no”
Falsely agreeing with everyone
Apologizing for everything
Feeling guilty for setting boundaries
Anger and Explosiveness
This has to be one of the most misunderstood trauma responses. Traumatic experiences are moments of helplessness. As a result, you can feel ripped of your power. Survivors of trauma often use anger and aggression as a way to exert control when they feel triggered. This is the “fight” in fight or flight.
Feelings of betrayal play a large role in this trauma response. As a result, you may develop certain behaviors within your relationships and in general. A few of those behaviors may be:
Nagging and expecting perfection
Childhood trauma and family dysfunction is the most common causes of codependent behavior. You may have felt rejected for you who are and this greatly affects self-worth down the road. As a result, you might find yourself in toxic relationships and constantly looking for validation through others.
Constantly looking for approval from others is a deeply rooted fear of rejection. You may have a hard time trusting your own intuition and believing someone else will always know better. A sign of codependency could be indecisiveness, difficulty identifying your feelings, and never trusting your own decisions.
The main driver of trauma behaviors is fear. You don’t have to be at the mercy of unresolved trauma for the rest of your life. With the help of a compassionate, trained counselor, you can begin to process traumatic experiences and learn valuable coping skills. Using trauma-focused therapy and techniques like CBT, you will heal deeply rooted wounds and develop the resilience and strength to deal with triggers in the future.
Sometimes emotional reactions can look like a trauma response, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what it is. If you experience any or all of the trauma responses listed above, it’s important to speak with a mental health professional. A lot of these responses can feel out of our control and lead us to believe we’re helpless. There is still hope.
Here at Dr. Messina and Associates, our compassionate team of professionals are qualified to help you at our Flower Mound, Texas, and Southlake, Texas, offices. Our Psychologists, Psychiatrists, and Counselors specialize in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychological testing, and medication management for a variety of emotional and behavioral health needs. All services are available in-person and online (telehealth). If you or a loved one are seeking help with mental health, we are here to help.
Dr. Michael Messina