Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. The interesting thing about trauma is that the exact same event or situation can affect a room full of individuals in thousands of different ways, and similarly, the exact same traumatic event will manifest in multiple outcomes in multiple lives. In this article, I explain the eight main ways that trauma manifests – shows up- in our lives, and why. If you’ve been navigating the impacts of trauma in your life, this article will help you recognize its impacts and move through them differently. Before we dive in, I’ll explain how trauma is actually defined, the most common childhood experiences that lead to trauma, and what traumatic stress looks like. Scroll down if you’d like to skip ahead to read about the 8 ways trauma manifests.
Emotional & Psychological Trauma: A Definition
Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless in a dangerous world.
Psychological trauma can leave you struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away. It can also leave you feeling numb, disconnected, and unable to trust other people.
Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and isolated can result in trauma being stored in the body, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the circumstances that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.
Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by:
- One-time events, such as an accident, injury, or a violent attack, especially if it was unexpected or happened in childhood.
- Ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood, battling a life-threatening illness or experiencing traumatic events that occur repeatedly, such as bullying, sexual abuses, domestic violence, or childhood neglect.
- Commonly overlooked causes, such as surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life), the sudden death of someone close, the breakup of a significant relationship, or a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, especially if someone was deliberately cruel.
Coping with the trauma of a natural or manmade disaster can present unique challenges—even if you weren’t directly involved in the event. In fact, while it’s highly unlikely any of us will ever be the direct victims of a terrorist attack, plane crash, or mass shooting, for example, we’re all regularly bombarded by horrific images on social media and news sources of those people who have been. Viewing these images over and over can overwhelm your nervous system and create traumatic stress.
Whatever the cause of your trauma, and whether it happened years ago or yesterday, you can make healing changes and move on with your life.
The Most Common Childhood Experiences That Lead to Trauma
- Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, abandonment and neglect
- Personality disorder within the family of origin
- Natural disasters or terrorism
- Family or community violence
- Unexplained surgery within the first three years of age
- Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- Refugee and war experiences
- Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
- Military family-related stressors
- Parents divorcing or separating
- Witnessing a mother or stepmother being treated violently
- A household member addicted to alcohol or other drugs
- A household member suicidal or mentally ill
- A household member in jail
Traumatic stress is extremely common among those who’ve been in any of the above situations.
Adults who suffer from traumatic stress are those who have been exposed to one or more traumas over the course of their lives and develop reactions that persist and affect their daily lives, long after the events have ended. Traumatic reactions can include a variety of responses, such as intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms or anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with self-regulation, problems relating to others or forming attachments, regression or loss of previously acquired skills, attention and academic difficulties, nightmares, difficulty sleeping and eating, and physical symptoms, such as aches and pains. Common coping mechanisms include using drugs or alcohol, behaving in risky ways, or engaging in unhealthy sexual activity.
Survivors who’ve suffered from traumatic stress often have specific types of symptoms when reminded of the trauma. These reactions interfere with daily life and their ability to function and interact with others. At no age are these survivors immune to the effects of traumatic experiences. The way that traumatic stress manifests will vary from person to person and will depend on the person’s age and developmental level.
Without treatment, repeated childhood exposure to traumatic events can affect the brain and nervous system and increase health-risk behaviors (e.g., smoking, eating disorders, substance use, and high-risk activities). Research shows that child trauma survivors can be more likely to have long-term health problems (e.g., diabetes and heart disease) or to die at an earlier age. Adult survivors of traumatic events may also have difficulty in establishing fulfilling relationships and maintaining employment.
Reminders and Adversities
Traumatic experiences leave a legacy of reminders that may persist for years. These reminders are linked to aspects of the traumatic experience, its circumstances, and its aftermath. You may be reminded by persons, places, things, situations, anniversaries, or by feelings such as renewed fear or sadness. Physical reactions can also serve as reminders, for example, increased heart rate or bodily sensations. Identifying your responses to trauma and loss reminders is an important tool for understanding how and why your distress, behavior, and functioning fluctuate over time. Trauma and loss reminders can reverberate within families, among friends, in schools, and across communities in ways that can powerfully influence the ability to recover. Addressing trauma and loss reminders is critical to recovery.
The 8 Ways Trauma Manifests in Our Lives
In his book, The Betrayal Bond, Patrick J Carnes Ph.D identified eight predominant ways that trauma continues to affect people over time:
- Trauma Reactions
- Trauma Pleasure
- Trauma Blocking
- Trauma Splitting
- Trauma Abstinence
- Trauma Shame
- Trauma Repetition
- Trauma Bonds
A Trauma Reaction is what therapists call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. This means, after the actual traumatic event, the individual continues to experience the stress of the trauma. Survivors of trauma may experience nightmares about the traumatic event or experience flashbacks when triggered. This is a Trauma Reaction.
Trauma Pleasure is seeking stimulation in the presence of extreme danger, violence, risk or shame. In Trauma survivors, the brain sometimes adjusts to arousal, which creates an addition that leads people to seek out high levels of stimulation to feel normal. This looks different for everyone, and includes engaging in high-risk behaviors such as skydiving or race-car driving or using drugs to heighten high-risk activities.
Trauma blocking refers to anything you use to escape the uncomfortable feelings, such as use of alcohol, drugs, watching mind-numbing TV, emotional eating, compulsive working, etc.
Trauma splitting is when victims learn to dissociate or detach from the uncomfortable reality of their trauma. For example, someone may focus on another reality by imagining themselves doing something they liked while they are being abused to separate themselves from their painful reality. Splitting may also take the form of amnesia. The survivor may not remember significant facts about the trauma. Sometimes different personalities will form. This is called multiple personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder.
Trauma abstinence refers to compulsive deprivation that trauma survivors engage in, especially in times of high stress, or shame, or anxiety. This is usually caused by family neglect, which then becomes self-neglect in adults. Survivors may deny themselves basic needs like eating, medical care, or heat. They may also avoid sexual pleasure or avoid spending money. They may also sabotage success opportunities and perform “underachieving” jobs compulsively.
Trauma can leave a feeling of being defective or flawed and that if other people knew what they were really like they would leave. Survivors of trauma may try to compensate by setting high standards for themselves to meet in order to earn acceptance from others. These standards are often painfully high and when they fail to meet them, they add to their existing shame.
Trauma repetition means repeating behaviors and/or seeking situations or people to re-create the trauma experience. Trauma survivors may find themselves in the same situation, with the same type of person again and again without making the connection with their original trauma.
Another way trauma survivors reenact their original trauma is by victimizing people in the same way that others victimized them. Trauma repetition is an effort to bring resolution to the traumatic memory. By repeating the experience, the victim can respond differently and eliminate the fear. However, reenactment, usually, ends up intensifying and deepening the traumatic wounds.
Trauma bond is a highly addictive attachment to the people who have hurt you. You may blame yourself for the abuse. You may even convert them into non-abusers by trying to help them understand what they are doing. These relationships are about insane loyalty and attachment. This attachment can cause you to distort your own reality and distrust your own judgment, and is a guarantee of more pain.
Supporting Yourself To Navigate Trauma
Remember, when you have suffered trauma, supporting yourself as an adult may be the most crucial part of your recovery.
Be patient and understanding with yourself. Healing from trauma takes time. Be patient with the pace of recovery and remember that everyone’s response to trauma is different, including your own. Don’t judge your trauma reactions, your responses or anyone else’s.
Don’t pressure yourself into talking about the Traumatic events, but find someone who can be available to you if and when you want to talk. Don’t force yourself to open up..
Recognize that you may become angry, irritable, withdrawn, or emotionally distant. Remember that this is a result of the trauma and may not have anything to do with you.
It has been my experience that we can all learn to work with and soothe our inner child, by learning to love and show up for them differently than our parents once did. It begins with acknowledgement and forgiveness for what has happened in the past, neutralizing the energy surrounding the traumatic event, and bringing all karma and agreements into present time with the individual involved. In addition, understanding how your specific trauma manifests, and then learning effective ways of communicating, or creating protective boundaries whenever you are in a reactive state.
About Andrea Firpo
Andrea Firpo is a trauma-informed guide and energy healer, who works with clients 1:1 to resolve past traumas, and live embodied, whole lives. Her passion is to help people realize the unique spiritual gifts of trauma. Learn more about the 1:1 services she offers or schedule a 15 minute connection call to see if she’s a fit to support your needs.