Lately, I’ve been learning about trauma.
I’m fascinated by it, really.
My interest is slightly self-serving, because the more I learn about the long-term effects of untreated trauma, the more I come to realize that I am suffering from PTSD. I am far from a doctor, or psychologist, but the more I learn, the more I realize that my situation cannot be a rarity.
Childhood trauma is pervasive, not to mention victims of violence, crime, assault, and emotional abuse that injure us as adults. The majority of us bear some scars from the past we would rather not examine.
Trauma is insidious and can pose itself like almost any mental health disorder. So, I have to wonder, how much of the anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorders that we see today stem from unresolved trauma?
The medical industry chronically treats symptoms and not patients, slapping every panic attack with a Xanax prescription (I am not one to criticize; pharmaceuticals are an enormously beneficial tool when compounded with talk therapy and other means of treatment).
The concern I am running into is that there is little support readily available to people with mental illness stemming from trauma. A flashback or panic attack can render the sufferer incapacitated, regardless of whether they are at work, or school, or alone with their kids.
By ignoring the trauma at the root of many mental illnesses, people who were once made to feel incredibly unsafe through a traumatic experience are retraumatized by a lack of supportive treatments for symptoms. This compounding of trauma means that the survivor is not going to heal themselves over time.
Trauma, left untreated, is more like an infected wound that scabs over and then heals. The initial injury might have healed, but the infection still lies beneath the skin, and, without proper treatment, it will spread, getting worse and worse. Trauma is a wound that time will not heal.
Our brains are amazingly adept at protecting us from our traumatic experiences. Often, enduring trauma leads the sufferer to dissociate, or even reframe the incident as a choice, not victimization. At the time, these protective mechanisms are helpful, but in the long run, they prevent us from seeing all of the ways we were shaped by our trauma and the negative effects it has on our lives.
Here are four subtle symptoms that may indicate unresolved trauma:
1. You have no timeline, or have lapses in time.
A hallmark of traumatic memory is the fracture in a timeline. A person suffering from unresolved past trauma can have lapses in memory, or misremember time, placing events and dates out of order.
These variances in time initially help the sufferer to distance themselves from the inciting incident, but over time, it can make you feel like you can’t trust your own memories.
One of the steps to recovery from traumatic experiences is to find a safe place to reconstruct a timeline of your past. Social media, medical records, and old journals are helpful with this task. You may be surprised to discover the stories you’ve reframed.
2. You’re jumpy AF.
This is kind of a given, but it is easy to overlook. A heightened response to stimuli is another telltale sign of unresolved trauma.
Traumatic events signal to the body that it is time to enact fight, flight, freeze, or play dead mode. This is a stress response from our cave days and is caused by a flood of stress hormones released by the body.
While we are actually in danger, this response serves us and may keep us safe, or increase our chances of survival. However, when all danger has passed, the traumatized brain keeps the stress levels high. Meaning an unexpected shout or a stranger bumping into us on the street is enough to send us into panic mode. This also can mean that you are on high alert and over-aware of threats, even when the situation is seemingly safe.
3. Sleep stuff.
Another response to the stress hormones released following trauma is a deep effect on sleep patterns. Most often, insomnia plagues the trauma victim, nightmares, odd dreams, or being unable to fully relax into a restful state all come from the body’s psychosomatic response, an effort to keep us alive and aware of potential threats. Conversely, there have been indications that sleep directly following a traumatic experience can lead to a lesser rate of PTSD symptoms.
4. A profound sense of shame.
PTSD sufferers and trauma survivors can be plagued by a profound sense of shame. Whether as a response to the initial trauma, their behavior as a sufferer of PTSD, or the shame over being victimized at all lead trauma survivors to being ashamed of their experiences.
This sense of shame can be so consuming that it prevents the sufferer from seeking help, for fear of having to talk about the experience with another person. It can also make certain parts of the body incredibly sensitive or lead the sufferer to attempt to hide with their choice of attire.
For me, it was when I recognized that I was still in trauma, years after my traumatic experience had ended, that led me to seek help. Realizing that my life was still suffering from a negative ripple effect that stemmed from a series of events over which I had little control drove me to seek treatment in the form of both medication and therapy.
I recognized that my shame was not because of my own inherent unworthiness, but a normal psychological response to being deeply hurt in the past.
Trauma does not heal overnight. There are ebbs and flows and times that I feel safe, and times when I can feel my heart race and my breath quicken because an image from the past washed over my brain. It doesn’t mean that we’re broken; it’s that the body is stuck on high alert, to keep us safe and alive. My own mission as someone suffering from trauma is to constantly remind my body that it is safe; we are safe.
If you or someone you know are suffering from unresolved trauma, the first step is to listen to your higher self—not the shame inflicted by the perpetrator.
Practice self-care, talk to your doctor, and find a therapist willing to work with you. Many therapists work on a sliding scale to serve people without access to insurance.