Trauma comes in many forms
When people hear the word trauma, what often comes to mind are catastrophic examples of war combat, physical or sexual violence, or perhaps experiencing a natural disaster, and they conclude that, because they have not experienced this, they do not have trauma.
Although these descriptions of traumatic events are correct, they are representing the extreme forms of trauma, sometimes aptly called ‘Big T’ traumas. What we know now is that a person can experience trauma from events with far less intensity as those most commonly associated when defining trauma. Trauma can come from an “absence of good stuff,” being neglected, humiliated, disappointed, intruded upon, shocked, or confused without having a confidante to help understand and sort through the confusion. When these “small t” traumas happen over and over becoming one’s norm, it’s difficult to recognize how deeply they shape a person’s outlook on the world and their relationships.
Researchers have been working diligently to uncover what makes the difference for trauma to take root in one person and not the other when they experience the same event side by side, much like war veterans. Studies now show that a person’s predisposition for developing trauma symptoms lies (much like addiction) in some personal combination of nature and nurture. More specifically, the nurture component emphasizes if and how a developing child was provided safety, understanding, and empathy through a relational bond leading to secure attachment. Any variation, or lack thereof, related to these foundational components points towards a person’s susceptibility for unresolved trauma (which may lead to PTSD), or more often, a spectrum of relational challenges that become patterns of re-traumatization and/or trauma bonding in adulthood.
Common Symptoms of Unresolved Trauma
- Emotional Flashbacks – i.e. getting ‘triggered’ into a fight or flight or subdue state or perpetually staying in one when there is no real threat to your survival
- Emotional flooding – a streaming of emotion that seems prolonged or incongruent with the context
- Hypervigilance and Attempts to control often for safety or love
- Insomnia, Nightmares, Night Terrors inability to get restful sleep
- Anxiety/Panic Attacks
- Anger/Rage outbursts
- Addictions including relationship addiction, codependency, substances, process addictions
- Eating disorders, obsessive/Compulsiveness, Impulsivity
- Autoimmune Diseases
- Treatment resistant Depression/Suicide Ideation
Other Less Known Symptoms of Trauma
- Inability to slow down
- Unresolved grief/avoidance of loss anniversaries
- Difficulty making/keeping friends, social anxiety
- Difficulty being alone
- Difficulty being close
- Chronic self-criticism, unrelenting inner critic
- Overwhelmed by constructive feedback
- The world feels unreal
Trauma Symptoms are Memories
We all grow up in our specific family ‘fishbowl.’ It’s difficult for young children to know and understand that a different life exists outside of their fishbowl until they become more exposed to the differences. One’s fishbowl feels like all there really is and can be. The norm is their normal, and a child adapts to succeed in their fishbowl dynamic. This common experience leads to relational adaptations that become autopilot (unconscious) patterns in adulthood, and are certainly not viewed as trauma produced. Whether a person can recall a traumatic experience that happened or not, their experienced symptoms in the present moment can point to the uniqueness of their fishbowl experience, adaptations that were born from things that may have happened or perhaps things that should have happened but did not. Current events can trigger themes such as:
“I’m not good enough”
“I have to be perfect to be loved”
“I’m not worth showing up for”
“I’m not safe”
These themes are memories, learned behaviors from the fishbowl, that we carry with us into adulthood.
Trauma Therapy Happens in the Present
It is necessary for trauma therapy to start in the present, and it can remain in the present to effectively heal symptoms. Returning to a traumatic event of the past isn’t necessarily the path to healing, although it can be based on assessment and guidance from a skilled clinician. Many trauma therapies offer significant benefits by cultivating what was missing in the fishbowl through the safety of the therapeutic relationship. Some therapies work specifically via new neural pathway development, linking and strengthening new pathways to replace old patterns of wiring. All trauma therapies offer tools for safety, soothing, self-compassion, and validation.