We have all lived through trauma. It leaves patterns that affect your relationships, who you are, how you feel, and every other aspect of your life. To live your best life, you have to understand your trauma and how to move on. Facing your pain will be unpleasant and difficult, but until you do this, you’ll be stuck in a loop. A loop where your past is your present and future. You have to stop this loop, to grow.
Let’s have a look at what trauma is, how it feels, how it affects your life, how you can move, and what to expect when you do so.
What is psychological trauma
If you’re in a car accident or fall while skiing, you might experience a form of physical trauma such as broken bones, cuts, or other injuries. Similar to your body experiencing lasting physical injuries from an accident, you can risk a similar response from enduring distressing events. This can be from situations where you’re physically in danger but also when your persona or inner sense of peace is threatened. That’s why emotionally abusive relationships can be just as dangerous as physical abuse for your long-term health. Sometimes even worse.
Psychological trauma is a typical response when you’ve been in danger, such as rape, an accident, and psychological violence. This results in an emotional response. At first, you might enter a state of shock and denial, but your sense of safety doesn’t return, and you’ll stay in a trauma response. When this sits in you without being dealt with, it causes unpredictable emotions, self-destructive patterns, bad relationships, and much, much more.
When you’ve experienced something traumatic, you’ll do whatever you can to avoid it happening again. The most known responses are fight and flight, but less known is the freeze or fawn response.
The fight response comes from a belief that if you fight back, you can maintain control and safety. You’ll feel energized and ready to defend yourself. This might look like getting into fist fights, yell, destroy things, or in other ways react outside of yourself.
The flight response comes from a belief that getting away from the situation is the best way to avoid danger. On the outside, you’ll do whatever it takes to get to safety. This might look like fleeing or avoiding social situations.
The freeze response comes from a belief that the best way to stay safe is to become unnoticeable. You can compare this to an animal playing dead in the face of a predator. This might look like an inability to communicate, move, or in any way, do anything to protect yourself.
This response feels like you’re floating outside of yourself like you can watch your body. It feels as if “you” are floating separately from it. This is called dissociating.
The fawn response comes from a belief that if you are nice to other people, they won’t hurt you. This response typically comes from complex trauma, such as childhood neglect and long-term emotional abuse.
The fawn response comes out as people-pleasing. You try to mirror others, both their behavior and opinions and become overly helpful. You do this with the belief that if you do this for them, they’ll be nicer to you. They won’t, and you might lose yourself in the process.
What is a traumatic event?
Something I found traumatic might have been an irrelevant experience to you. There are endless situations that can be traumatic and have long-lasting scars. Some of these might have been a one-time thing, such as a car crash, or have been going on for years, such as bullying.
The following are some examples of situations that can be traumatizing.
- An accident
- (Sexual) assault
- Bullying or harassment
- Break ups
- Loss of friendships
- Manipulation and abuse
If you feel threatened in any way and you don’t restore your sense of safety, you can be left traumatized. But there is one thing that most traumatic events have in common.
When you feel trapped, feel like you’re unable to influence the situation in any way, the risk of it leaving you traumatized is higher. You’ll notice that the victim felt helpless in most stories about trauma.
Whether or not you physically were able to respond or defend yourself doesn’t matter much here. Phycological defenselessness has the same result. Maybe you were physically able to leave the abusive relationship or stand up to your bullies, but in your head, you were trapped.
When you are in a situation where you can’t defend yourself, your sense of safety within disappears. Trauma is a response to danger and a lack of feeling safe with yourself after. The feeling of letting yourself down is the biggest danger to this safety.
Remember, whether you physically could have made a difference doesn’t matter. No matter what, it wasn’t your fault.
We tend to view “large” traumatic events as far worse than the “smaller” ones. How could being bullied ever result in the same response as being violently assaulted? To better understand how seemingly less traumatic events can build up and become just as serious as the “big” ones, we’ll look at a simple analogy.
Think of yourself as an empty glass and trauma as water. When your glass overflows it can’t contain anymore. The water will spill out and soak its surroundings. There are two ways the glass can be filled.
- Adding a lot of water at once
- Filling it one drop at a time
If the glass isn’t emptied, continuously adding small amounts of water have the same result as filling it all at once.
It’s the same with trauma. If you don’t heal from your trauma before experiencing new trauma, the new pain will be stacked on top of the old. By slowly stacking the pain, the event that in isolation didn’t seem significant can overtake your life.
Some common examples of accumulated trauma come from bullying, abusive relationships, and childhood neglect. In these situations, the small remarks and feelings of danger might not be significant alone, but they will be when accumulated.
Can trauma change your brain?
Your brain will change according to how you use it. It can create new synapses and make certain areas more or less dominant. We call this brain plasticity.
When you’ve experienced trauma, your brain will stay in a hyperalert state. Your memory and impulse control becomes worse. Instead, your brain is moving more energy to scan your environment for dangers. When you stay in this state, your brain will create new synapses to make it easier to be on guard. But don’t worry. Nothing in your brain is permanent.
When you get back your sense of safety, your brain can slowly return to its normal state.
Signs of trauma
When you’ve been in danger and haven’t managed to release it, it’ll show up as a series of psychological and physiological symptoms.
Remember, what you feel is okay, no matter what. Your feelings and reactions are normal responses to abnormal events.
Trauma can have consequences on your psychological and emotional health. Some might experience a few symptoms, while others can go through them all at various times. The symptoms include:
- Shock, denial, and disbelief
- Guilt and shame
- Feeling disconnected from others
- Feeling disconnected from your mind and body
- Issues with concentration
- Mood swings
- A feeling of hopelessness
A prolonged feeling of danger can have consequences for your physiological health. These symptoms include:
- Muscle tension
- Body ache and pain
- On guard
- Racing heartbeat
- Being on edge
Related: Habits to improve sleep
Traumatic memories look and feel different due to the high level of stress when the event occurred.
These memories are often far more vivid, intense, and persistent. They’ll often be disorganized. There is no real sense of time, which can add to the chaos they bring when recalled.
Can you be traumatized without remembering it?
You might have all the signs of having endured trauma or have irrational fears with seemingly no reason behind it. It might seem impossible that you are carrying trauma with you without remembering it. It isn’t. There can be several reasons for this. Three of them are:
Dissociative amnesia is a condition where you can’t recall an event that a person with a normal memory would. This usually happens when you’ve endured serious trauma or stress.
Dissociative amnesia is often an extended and extreme version of the dissociation in the freeze response. It’s similar to why you withdraw yourself in immediate danger. You can repress the memory of that pain to make sure you never have to experience it again.
While this might seem like a good thing, to be free of the memory, it isn’t. The symptoms will still be there. If you can’t remember it, it’ll be harder to point out why and let it go.
You can be traumatized without you having ever encountered something traumatic. It sounds impossible, but it isn’t. Here’s why.
Your parents passed on their genes to you and their parents to them. These genes can influence eye color, height, body type, and everything else about you. Trauma can go in and make changes to these genes. If your parents had experienced trauma, it would sit in their genes. When they had you, some of these genes carrying trauma might have been passed on to you. As a result, you could show symptoms of trauma because of something your parents experienced.
Remember, just because your parents experienced trauma doesn’t mean you can’t live a completely normal life.
Trauma in early childhood
Your earliest years shaped you as a person. You created your blueprint for the world, how things function, what’s safe, and who you are. You can’t put words on why or how. When you were an infant, you could feel and process emotions. But the centers for advanced thinking and speech weren’t developed yet.
Back then, you could not process what happened around you, so you didn’t create a lasting memory of anything. Not the good nor the bad. Instead of showing up as memories, these early years will show up as your patterns and emotions. Often, you’ll think that it’s just who you are.
It is who you are because you’ve never experienced anything but this. But that doesn’t mean that you’re never going to heal from it.
Life with psychological trauma
Trauma comes with a long list of symptoms. These symptoms come out in different ways in different situations and can turn your life upside down. Here is how psychological trauma can affect your life.
Mental health issues
Trauma can cause a long range of symptoms that impact your mental health. These symptoms can develop into clinical diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, and possibly bipolar disorder.
The symptoms displayed by trauma might also lead to misdiagnoses, especially in children. The most common of these is ADHD, but also autism spectrum disorders have shown to be misunderstood trauma.
Self-destructive coping mechanisms
When you experience strong or painful emotions, you’ll have various coping mechanisms to help you adjust. While everybody feels painful emotions, people who have suffered trauma tend to have frequent, intensely painful emotions. And the more pain you feel, the more you need to drown it.
People who’ve endured trauma tend to have several self-destructive coping mechanisms. Some of the most common are:
- Drug use
- Over working
- Excessively working out
- Compulsive shopping, gambling, etc.
- Impulsive and risky sexual behavior
The self-destructive coping mechanisms might help as short-term pain relief. But over time, the coping mechanisms develop into bad habits, they can cause additional damage to your mental and physical health.
You’ll have behavioral patterns whether you’ve experienced traumatic events or not. Your earlier experiences seem to happen in a loop, again and again. If this is positive or not depends on your earliest experiences.
If you’ve been abused in your childhood by the people who were supposed to love you, you will most likely mistake abuse for love later in life. You’ll be drawn to people who treat you the same way you were treated as a kid. The pattern of abuse can continue with your friends and partners. If you don’t manage to stop it, you do it all over again with your own kids. Not because you’re evil or your parents were so, but because you don’t know better.
We like familiarity. Good or bad, we resist change. This, and the fact that you don’t know better, makes it so difficult to leave the old patterns and create some that can lead to a better life.
The roles you occupy in social settings can be determined by your response to trauma. If you tend to fawn, you might act as a people pleaser who lacks a sense of self. Freeze can cause you to be quiet and have a hard time expressing yourself. Flight can make you avoid social situations, and fight can cause you to be aggressive or loud.
The most common is to have a combination of the responses above, depending on who you’re with and how threatening they seem to you.
Loss of meaningful relationships
It can be difficult to have meaningful relationships with other people when you’ve survived something traumatic.
It can be hard to trust again after experiencing something that made you fear for your safety. These trust issues can make it difficult to open up. You might begin to expect the worst from the people around you.
Another reason is that you can withdraw from yourself. You have picked up self-destructive coping mechanisms. The person you used to be is buried deep below all the pain and suffering. When you don’t have access to who you truly are, it’s hard to connect with people, except those who are just as hurt as you.
Trauma bonding happens when an abuser puts their victim through cycles of abuse and validation. This leaves the victim addicted to the abuser. They’ll stay in hell to get just a second of the validation they crave. The abuser can be your partner, friend, coworker, or family.
People who are victims of trauma bonds tend to be people who are victims of similar abuse in the past.
How to let go of the past and move beyond your trauma
Now that you know what trauma is and how it looks and affects your life, it’s time to take active steps toward recovery. The road might be long and painful, but it will be worth it. To move on to a better life, you have to calm your nervous system, reshape your narrative, and reconnect with yourself and the world around you. Here are 11 things you can do to heal and grow.
- Form better habits
- Reconnect with people
- Talk about it
- Find something bigger than you
- Learn to forgive
- Change your world view
- Move your body
- Live in the moment
Remember, it might not be your fault that you feel this way, but it’s your responsibility to get better. Nobody can do that for you. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth it.
Related: How to heal trauma
How long does it take to heal?
You probably want to know how long it takes to heal. How long it takes before you can go back to being as you were before. Unfortunately, there is no right answer to this.
It’s impossible to give a correct estimate of how long it takes to heal from trauma. It depends on what you’ve been through, who you are, what you’re doing, and who’s supporting you. It can take anywhere from a couple of months to several years.
And when you do feel that you’ve moved past the trauma, you won’t return to being the old you. Sure, some, if not most, aspects of your life will be the same. But you won’t be the same person. You’ll be smarter, stronger, and in better touch with yourself and the world around you. You’ll have grown.
Healing isn’t linear
The process of healing isn’t linear. In periods, you’ll feel like you’re making progress. You feel better, your sleep improves, and you feel more connected to yourself and others. And then, you feel like you’re pulled back into the darkness. Moving on from trauma feels as if you take two steps forward and then one step back.
The period of moving forward feels best, but it’s when you take a step back you learn. There is a reason for this regression. Have you been pushing yourself too hard or not hard enough? Are you still holding on to the past or anxious about the future? Use the bad periods to understand yourself better. To make the next period of progress even better.
Remember; that you’re taking a step backward doesn’t mean that everything is lost. Don’t let it discourage you from truly healing.
What happens when you let go?
Life after trauma rarely looks like the life you had before. It forces you to become a stronger person. You have grown from something that could break even the strongest person. You have proved to yourself how strong you truly are. In the process, you have gathered invaluable life lessons.
Post traumatic growth
Trauma will change you as a person. There’s no reason to resist this. At first, you’ll probably experience a negative change, but when you begin to move past the trauma, you might experience extreme personal growth. This is called post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth is the change you might experience after that makes you mentally stronger. Usually, positive change happens in the 5 following areas:
- Relationships and human understanding
- New possibilities
- Personal strength
- Spiritual change
- Appreciation for life
Around 50-66% of everyone who has been through trauma will experience this growth. Some will experience it straight away, while others have to go through healing first. You might not experience this growth, but if you truly move on, you will grow. Maybe you just don’t realize it yet.
Living through trauma is one of the most painful things you’ll experience. You lost yourself and the world around you. You had to navigate through a world of darkness. At some point, you had to find a way out. People who haven’t pulled themselves out of this darkness will never understand how much it takes. But now you do.
When you’ve lived with this pain and moved forward, you’ll learn a lot about life. Life lessons about yourself and everything around you. A few examples of the lessons you might learn are:
- Feel you emotions but don’t let them control you
- Your worldview is your reality
- Put yourself first
- Be responsible for yourself
- Everything is temporary
- Be kind (Everybody is hurting)
- It’s better to be alone than with the wrong people
Your lessons might look like this. Maybe you learned something else. There is no right or wrong here.
Where to go from here
Trauma can influence every aspect of your life, and it’s easy to feel lost. It might look like life will never be more than this pain, but at some point, you’ll escape and grow into a better life.
You now have the knowledge about psychological trauma and the tools to grow and move on. There’s nothing left to do other than continue the journey toward healing.
The journey is long and often difficult, but one day you’ll look back and be thankful that you did this. One day, you’ll have gathered your own lessons from your pursuit of peace. Good luck!