The Harmful Effects of Ignoring Low-Grade Trauma.

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During an early morning, in May 2013, the sun was creeping in through the blinds, and I cursed myself for never getting around to buying black-out curtains.

I’d lived there for five years, but the feeling of it being a temporary living situation never truly left me.

As I tried to hide from the day by enveloping myself in fluffy blankets and an army of pillows, I could hear the buzz of my phone. Without my glasses, I blindly felt around until I stumbled upon it. I squinted to see what the early fuss was all about.

It was a text from my fiancé.

We had been together for 12 years and had just gotten engaged the previous February on a trip to Southeast Asia. We watched fireworks over the bay for Chinese New Year, toured temples, and looked for a flat in Singapore. His company was moving him there soon, and I was to go with him. It was an exciting, daunting, and scary experience all at the same time.

The text said he needed to talk with me. He sounded—as much as you can “sound” like anything in a text—panicked. Admittedly, I didn’t think much of it. He could be tightly wound from time to time. So, I asked if it could wait, as I wasn’t awake enough to handle talking him down from whatever it was that had gotten him so worked up. But no, it had to be now. He was in Singapore working—and with the time change and his demanding schedule, I relented, so we could talk on Facetime.

I moved to the living room, just to make sure I’d stay awake and attentive. When the video feed began, he looked…off. Perhaps he was just tired. After all, three-week rotating commitments in separate countries across the globe from one another, while trying to balance a long-distance relationship, had clearly been taking a toll on him.

I don’t remember how the conversation started, but as he finally got to what he wanted to say, we lost connection…[email protected]!#.

There were a few more awkward minutes while we got back online and retraced where we were in the conversation, and then he cut to the chase: he wanted to break off the engagement. And with a brief pause, he said he also wanted to end our relationship.

I vividly remember looking down at my ring, not saying anything. Not reacting in any blatantly obvious way that one would expect when you’re in the middle of your world being shattered before your eyes. I was shockingly flat in affect. The sense of disbelief perhaps overwhelmed the ones of failure and guilt that were outside the door, knocking until I was ready to open. The room felt like a vacuum. There was no sound.

Disbelief took over. I insisted this was just one of his “episodes” and convinced him to take some time and get back to me in a month so we could discuss. This time he relented, and we agreed to talk soon.

It was a deafeningly silent month, in which I did my best to ignore the guilt and failure I felt for contributing to us getting here. I’d like to say I was cautiously optimistic, but I was more likely in hardcore denial. He and I met when we were 19. We were family.

Anyway, the month rolled by—and a few days after my birthday, my love wanted to talk.

I went home, prepared for the worst and expected the best, sat on my bed, and turned on my computer. I was relieved to see him; to hear his voice was oddly comforting given the circumstance. I told him I was scared. He abashedly acknowledged.

I don’t remember much of the conversation because—bottom line—his answer was the same.

I wailed a sound that I had never heard come from me before or since. To this day, I’m not even sure it was human. “Nooo! Why? Why?!,” I demanded. He couldn’t explain. So, I began to beg as if my life depended on it. “Please! Please! We can work this out. Please! No!”

I couldn’t breathe. The waterfall coming from my face had now soaked my shirt.

I was experiencing what I now know to be cognitive dissonance—where the reality of what was happening didn’t match what I felt to be true: that he was the love of my life. I was the most beautiful woman to him, in or out of the room. He would never do this to me; certainly not in this way. This man was my safe place in the world.

How wrong I was. After that moment, my fiancé, his family and friends, the life I was planning, and the girl I had known for 30 years vanished. I’ve never seen him or them since that moment.

To this day, I do not have the answers I wanted or any profound recognition of the deep destruction initiated upon me. Much later, I recall telling a friend that I no longer recognized the person I was before this happened. I would say that it felt like I died, and any memory of that person felt like watching a movie of someone else’s life.

What is trauma?

Trauma, as I’ve heard it so eloquently put by Tara Brach, is a cutting off. It’s a cutting off from our own body and a cutting off from others. It can happen in a single incident or within many over the course of time. Whichever way it happens though, in these moments, our nervous system gets so overloaded that our existing coping strategies don’t work. And because we can’t process what is happening, we freeze, and the resulting fear gets locked into our energetic and physical system. This is how Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) arises.

Before I heard this, I knew I had symptoms similar to trauma and PTSD, but could not bring myself to say it out loud. I had always presumed these two things were saved for those who experienced violence or the death of a close family member. I thought admitting to struggling with my trauma would be viewed as dramatic and disrespectful to “real” survivors.

But I knew I had symptoms. Among the many, adrenal fatigue, muscle pain, and spacing out while losing track of time were accompanied by strained relationships and a distrust of my own judgment. Unknown to me at the time was that the high level of cortisol was destroying neurons in my brain causing everything to be perceived as a threat.

Normal Trauma.

The Siridian Institute says that 70 percent of Americans experience trauma at least once in their lives and that 20 percent of those will go on to have PTSD symptoms.

That is an incredible number of us navigating turbulent waters. And whether it is initiated by violence, the sudden death of a loved one, an illness, or something “low-grade” like the loss of a relationship or a job, the possibility of experiencing some level of trauma is far more normal than we may recognize.

Unfortunately, it’s the shame of it all that keeps us bound to the experience of uncomfortable and ugly life events. Shame will cause us to internalize or externalize blame, guilt, or anger, and give us reasons to avoid feeling and dealing.

I know for me, it only prolonged my recovery and in some ways continues to prohibit a full reconnection with the unlived life that is waiting for me. Years later, I still deal with things like intrusive thoughts and regaining self-confidence. But I’ve somehow learned to relax into it, knowing that I can call it what it is: trauma.

I share this with you today in hopes that, through my story—which is equal parts unusual and ordinary—we can begin to soften to ourselves and to one another. Should you be facing something difficult or supporting someone who is, may you find peace in knowing the normalcy of trauma.

Do your best to find healthy ways to ground when it feels like too much and to accept that your healing will happen in its own time. Be compassionate and patient with yourself. And lastly, release any shame and lean into others for support.
Be well.


Author: Danielle Wonkovich
Image: Terry Presley/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Travis May

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Danielle Wonkovich

Providing onsite & online teaching and coaching sessions by way of yoga and complimentary wellness techniques, Danielle Wonkovich combines her training in yoga, mind-body connection, and trauma release to help clients navigate personal struggles and life transitions. She has a passion for creating light-hearted healing environments that encourage students to harness pain, fears, and vulnerabilities to regain their personal power.

Marilyn Halls Oct 9, 2018 5:39pm

Discussing the existance of low grade trauma is very important because the sudden feelings of abandonment are very real and disturbing. I am a therapist currently seeing 2 clients whose lives were upended recently by out of the blue break ups. Counseling can help get people back on track, recognizing their worth and letting go of shame.

Terri Severson Oct 7, 2018 1:50pm

Ten years. I spent 10 years following the mind set of all the reasons I was not complete enough on my own, wholly self loving and independent enough to have handled the loss of a 20 year marriage without losing my identity. And I can tell you that all that mind set will do is lead you into an isolation so deep you will never allow yourself to love or be loved because love cannot exist in a vacuum. Not acknowledging, or having the courage to acknowledge that loss is traumatic, that I experienced a huge trauma in my life is or was my ego's game. Because the shame of being human, grieving, needing love and connection from another and to have been willing during those 20 years to have been vulnerable enough to love is not o.k. in the current climate. I also had a business close and empty nest within the same time frame, so the roles that were my identifiers, my foundation of me, wife, Mother, career all were things I had to grieve. But because I had believed all the rhetoric surrounding my self worth I spent most of those 10 years denying any of it had touched me, because I was whole... right? No, I was a real live human being, not some version of a woman who didn't need anyone or anything to tell her who she was. And denying trauma? Well, it just becomes something you drag along with you coloring all your interactions because while it's cycling through you ignored, you trust no one. So your best bet is to remember you are human, a real live human who needs others and needs to love and be loved. And trauma? Once you acknowledge it and find yourself still alive, breathing and wanting to go on living and loving, you find out what your made of.

Roberta Pettigrew Oct 7, 2018 7:56am

Wow,,, I too experienced trauma,,its exactly how you say it,,to me anyway....thank you ,,good read,, it helps..xx

Julie Blodgett Harpigny Oct 7, 2018 12:01am

Thank you.

Dominique Payne Oct 6, 2018 9:01pm

Thank you for sharing your experience, Danielle. It hits us hard... this life. Recovery from traumatic events can take a long time, a lot of self-seeking, and a lot of work to process. I'm dealing with this myself after a series of traumas that left me feeling like I'd had a truck-load of pianos dropped on my head. I could relate to you making that strange wail.... it's the cry from the deepest part of our soul that has been pierced with unimaginable grief. I wish you well on your journey and hope that life is being kinder to you now. Take care and be blessed.

Mark LaPorta Oct 6, 2018 8:39pm

Kari Zh BAY BEE!

Nonie W. Arthurs Oct 6, 2018 8:29pm

Yes, truth to thoughts and clarity of things not understood, but percieved. Trauma. I thank you. xx

Mark LaPorta Oct 6, 2018 6:56pm

Good script! Karpman Drama Triangle played very gently. Please remember one thing -- of many, I know -- "post" means "after;" after means connected. We don't realize the decisions we make. And that word "trauma" so multidimensional. And hard to look at. Events need to be felt, processed, and relinquished. Like any other psycho-spiritual endeavor. Ignoring something is an active choice, at one's own peril. Seek ye first the Kingdom -- single-pointed meditation upon a higher thought -- and all else will be laid out in proper proportion. That's a guarantee. Best wishes.

Kandy Angel Oct 6, 2018 5:59pm

You pulled the thoughts straight from my head. The feelings of sadness and panic and rage that roll through you for years to come, that live in your gut and weigh you well deserves a listing under trauma.

Sonam Hajela Oct 6, 2018 5:09pm

You're "very sensitive to those going through breakups"? Right. Maybe re-read your incredibly judgemental, un-compassionate, dismissive post. Danielle wasn't trying to delve into the breakup, WHY it happened, or the relationship itself. She was trying to talk about the low-grade PTSD--the aftermath--that affects some people after going through incredibly difficult times in their lives.

Phyllis Miller Oct 6, 2018 3:05pm

Danielle, thank you for sharing your "trauma" with me. A trauma, big or small, is real if you say it is. Yes, I can personally relate to the story you shared. I was married 24 years, raised 4 children with "the love of my life" who one day decided he was done. That was 5 years ago. I'm still spinning, I still have difficulty recognizing myself in the mirror, I continue to experience cognitive dissonance. I know that this is my reality now and at the same time my brain is always scanning for a way to "make it all go back" to the way it was. Not gonna happen.of course, you could have used a different example, for me this was perfect. I am honored by your courage to tell "Your Truth." No one gets to tell another person what is or isn't Traumatic. Every comment on this thread, with the exception of a very few, were judgmental, critical and harsh. Those of us who understand trauma, as a very personal experience, get it. Love to you, to all of us, who have been crushed by life in one way or another, as we continue to reach for the light. ❤

Nancy Mann Oct 6, 2018 2:51pm

I very much appreciate the soulful sharing of your experience as I have been “in this boat” and have been struggling for nearly 2 years to get my life back in order through many mediums. Your writing is point on and realistic in my view. Nice to know one is never alone in investigating recovery.

Kari Zahar Jun 8, 2018 5:02am

Sarah, I'm only commenting because there's no thumbs down button. I don't understand why you feel you get to define what's a trauma for someone else.

Sarah Green Neighbors Oct 13, 2017 5:13am

Danielle Wonkovich Wendy's book sounds full of compassion. 😉

Camille Selhorst Oct 12, 2017 4:51am

Thank you for sharing so honestly. This is such a sweet and heartfelt story with a beautiful intention. I always appreciate the reminder to soften more fully toward myself.

Danielle Wonkovich Oct 10, 2017 5:04pm

Replace the story with any situation. I could have easily written about job loss, for example. To me, we can't fully understand or filter someone else's experience solely because it falls under a particular category; or because we have gone through a similar experience but in a different way. Any loss event - relationship, job, innocence, etc. - inherently has an inward "review" process attached to it. That's not what I intended to approach in this particular instance, but to each their own. If it doesn't resonate with you, then that's OK too. Take care!

Sarah Harvey Oct 10, 2017 10:40am

I think it´s difficult to talk about breakups in terms of trauma, but I appreciate the honesty of your post. I agree with Wendy Leask. Better to look inwards when we feel the way that we feel, why we react the way we reacted. I´m very sensitive to those going through a breakup, and I know it isn´t easy, but I´m not sure if labelling it as a trauma is beneficial to anyone. People break up because they are not supposed to be together. Just like best friends often leave our lives as quickly as they came into it. It´s easy to grieve and feel like a complete wreck, because you feel you´ve lost a part of yourself, but I think better to look into why you don´t feel complete on your own, why you put your happiness into someone else loving you or not, and build up self-love and a life of your own that is completely fulfilled and wholesome, than billions of people taking time off work for post-traumatic breakups and losing years of their lives as they grieve and get counselling.

Danielle Wonkovich Oct 8, 2017 3:08pm

Wow, Annabella. It sounds like you've been through a lot. Appreciate the message. In some ways fully cutting off contact can be seen as kind, as prolonged interaction has the potential to leave the wound open in a different way. Regardless, loss is loss right? I hope you are in a more peaceful phase of life. X

Danielle Wonkovich Oct 8, 2017 3:04pm

David, I'm the one that is humbled. Thank you for your note. Difficult experiences, in my opinion, are meant to be felt as fully as the good ones. Keep going and if I can be a resource in some way, please don't hesitate.

David Ferguson Oct 7, 2017 2:12pm

Thanks a bunch for writing this. I feel humbled by your courage. I share your fears in describing life events which cause harm as "trauma", as the word tends to be used in extreme circumstances. I'm beginning to view certain portions of my childhood through that particular lens and it feels much more constructive and intuitive to do so. Thanks again for articulating your experience.

Annabella Bray Oct 7, 2017 4:43am

It took me a good 10 years to come through the trauma of a sudden breakup after a 7 year relationship (also my first), so I know exactly the symptoms and experience you descibe. It is exactly like someone dying, especially as in your case when you never see or hear from them again, which is horrendous. I was fortunate to maintain some contact over the next 7 years until his new partner made him cut off all contact and it is as if he is now one of my dead friends that I'll never see again, so I don't think these experiences are 'low-grade' at all, especially as I have also been through the loss of 2 best friends through illness so I can compare the experiences - the trauma is the same. Thanks for articulating it Danielle X

Danielle Wonkovich Oct 7, 2017 2:55am

Wendy Leask, this is a brief post meant only to show a very specific portion of a much larger experience that is -and will remain - private. I'm sorry you could relate to the experience in some way, but glad you seem to have come to a profound understanding of it and yourself. Good luck to you on your book.

Danielle Wonkovich Oct 6, 2017 9:48pm

Thank you, Svenja. I was uncertain how such a sensitive and personal moment would be received, as people will always have their opinions (about me and him too). But in as much as another might gain reassurance of their own experience - or conversly, we can soften the judgement of another's- then perhaps exposing it is worth the risk.

Wendy Leask Oct 6, 2017 9:46pm

Danielle Wonkovich no I assure you, I did not.

Danielle Wonkovich Oct 6, 2017 9:32pm

Wendy, I believe you're missing the point of the article, but I appreciate your concern.