Are you living under the influence of trauma? It is easy to see when a person is under the influence of drinking too much alcohol, or high on drugs. People who have experienced trauma are also often under the influence of that trauma. Often they don’t know how much it affects them. Unresolved trauma profoundly affects how people see themselves, relate to other people, and view the world.
This post was hard to write because there are so many different ways trauma can play out in people’s lives. Unprocessed trauma is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, addictions, and relationship problems. What some people view as personal weaknesses, character flaws, and bad habits are the after-effects of chronic trauma they have gone through.
People with trauma are often labeled with mental illness. Trauma does affect the brain chemistry and nervous system very much. Sometimes people with serious depression and anxiety are told by doctors and psychiatrists that they have an in balance of brain chemistry and will have to be on medication for this the rest of their lives.
Trauma counseling, eating healthier, exercise, and meditation can restore the brain chemistry so the person may be able to get off these medications.
The symptoms of trauma are what naturally happen when people are abused or neglected. Instead of looking at the person as having “disease” or “mental illness,” it is more accurate to view the person has having a “normal” response to trauma. For instance if a person was frequently abused as a child, that person is trained to not trust others and to be on constant guard for what will happen next.
Being tense and on guard is a learned response the person uses to try to get back some control of their lives. This hyper vigilance continues into adulthood when the person is no longer being abused. The person feels he has to be on the watch all the time and not let his guard down.
It usually takes trauma therapy to help the person let go of being anxious, scared, and overly cautious. Spiritual experiences and/or intense work in a 12-step program can also bring about this change. (12 step program is AA, Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, or any of the other many programs that use the same 12 steps of AA).
One of the most difficult and painful after effects of trauma is trouble with emotions. Either the person feels too much emotion—intense anger, sadness, fear, frustration, discouragement, and/or hopelessness. Or the person feels too little emotion—lack of motivation, lack of joy, numb, and/or shut down. The same goes for sexual feelings: The person who was sexually abused can have too much desire for sex, or little to no desire for sex. Some people swing from feeling too much emotion to too little emotion. Others are irritable, angry and lose their temper easily.
A traumatized individual can have many triggers. In an instant the feelings the person had when abused/neglected return. It is a conditional response. Sometimes people don’t realize their feelings are triggers from the past and blame their feelings on what is happening in the present.
The degree to which an adult will struggle with persistent anxiety is directly related to how young the person was when the abuse occurred and how close the person was to the abuser. A woman who was sexually abused at age 3 by her father will have much more anxiety than a girl sexually abused at age 15 by a neighbor down the street.
Some people have no memory of the trauma they have experienced because it happened when they were babies, before they were old enough to develop memories or have words. These memories are stored in emotions and the body. This is called ET—Early Trauma.
People who were chronically neglected and/or abused have nervous systems that have been overloaded for years. Their nervous systems may be on “high alert” all the time. This leads to more chronic health conditions. Trauma and neglect is associated with chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, tension head aches, fibomyalgia, and IBS.
Trauma can disturb a child’s learning. Sometimes the child can’t keep up in her classes. This brings additional feelings of inadequacy, failure, and shame. Other times the child feels driven obsessively to earn straight A’s in an attempt to feel “good enough”.
People who have been traumatized as youth will get stuck emotionally at the age they were traumatized. They can have a part of themselves who becomes more mature but there is another part of them that may not have matured beyond young ages such as age 2 or 3.
This could explain the “drama” that can happen in families, partnerships, and dating. A husband may sometimes act like an adult, but other times act like a child with temper tantrums; he may lie and spend money on whatever he wants. A wife may be very responsible in some ways, but become very emotional, cry for the smallest reason, spend foolishly, or refuse to talk when mad.
The relationships of people who have been traumatized are often contaminated by trauma. The closer and stronger the relationship, the more it is affected. Unresolved trauma causes a person to become over controlling or very insecure. As an adult this person will feel her partner is against her or is shaming her when in reality the partner is on her side and not shaming her. For example, one man may say to his partner, “You are disorganized.” His partner may feel he is saying, “You are messy and not good enough for me.”
A history of trauma affects one’s whole view of the world. This person may see the world as a scary place where danger lurks around every corner. She may have difficulty making friends, saying “no” to the friends she has, and expressing feelings and thoughts.
Dr. Claudia Black, an expert in dysfunctional families and trauma treatment, wrote a book titled Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel. The book describes family patterns where one parent is an alcoholic. I believe these dynamics occur in most families where there is abuse or neglect. Feeling safe is missing in these families. Just as the title says, people are unable to talk about what is most important to them, unable to feel what they feel, and unable to trust others.
Dr. Black also identifies other typical rules in the family of an addict that include:
- don’t think (don’t actually think about what is happening in the family)
- don’t question (don’t question family members who are hurting you)
- don’t ask (don’t ask anything and don’t expect anything-stay quiet)
- don’t play (always be mature and adult)
- don’t make mistakes
Post to be continued in “Under the influence of trauma, Part 2”
You can read more about how I treat trauma here