Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unresolved Trauma Looks Like......

Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.
Image via Wikipedia
As I work with individuals who have experienced different forms of abuse and trauma in their lives, it is clear that unless they have really worked at it, the trauma is still affecting them in ways they don't recognize or connect with it.  Many people enter the counseling process without even realizing they have been traumatized.  They just think whatever has happened to them is part of life and they have moved on.  However, sometimes the negative patterns they find themselves in, can often be residual effects of abuse, neglect or traumatic experiences.

      It is important to understand that trauma is different for everyone.  It differs from abuse in that trauma is described as the long term effect of abuse.  One of the main principles to understand when dealing with a traumatized person is that it is the person's experience of the event, not the event itself, that is traumatizing.  It is our perception of what has happened or is happening, as well as our interpretation of what that means for the future which determines our experience.  That perception creates a lens that we see life through from that point on.  If the traumatic perception is strong enough, we begin to develop coping mechanisms to help avoid running into that experience in the future.  Traumatic experiences that have gone unresolved can affect our response patterns and can initiate spontaneous triggers that put us into fight or flight responses if the experience is strong enough.  Often I have clients report that they can't think, remember or recall information when they are under certain stressors or anxiety.  Some individuals think they have ADD but after going through EMDR therapy and resolving the traumatic emotional chemistry, their confusion, distraction and/or lack of focus goes away.  

      There are some obvious indications that a person is dealing with unresolved trauma; such as self harm, suicidal thoughts and feelings or addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex etc.  However there are some things that may not seem as defined as these behaviors.  For example, not being able to tolerate intense emotion may be a sign that a person has unresolved trauma in their lives.  The original traumatic event as perceived by the person initially may have brought on an intense emotional response.  Therefore it would be reasonable to conclude that anything that feels like that again would be significantly difficult to bear.  Often when children go through something that is traumatic to them, they dissociate from the memory and/or the feelings because it is simply too intense for them to process.  However, whether we are aware of memory or not, the experience is recorded and when we experience something that feels similar to the event, we may have a reaction.  

      Being unable to commit in relationships, fear of commitment, being unable to bond....these are symptoms of unresolved trauma.  Additionally, fear of conflict can be the result of never seeing conflict resolved.  This can be very traumatic for a child, which can lead to becoming an adult without the conflict resolution skills needed to deal with the many situations we face in life which involve conflict.  Without those skills, conflict can be a very scary situation and cause the adult to again experience those childhood anxieties that came when they were involved in or heard conflict that went unresolved.  

Cover of
Cover of Molecules of Emotion
       Emotions and memory are chemistry within the body.  According to Candace Pert, in Molecules of Emotion, our emotions are biochemical and effect our bodies down to the cellular level.  When this chemistry goes unresolved through our natural processing mechanisms, it has the capacity to be triggered again and again by whatever feels similar to the original event.  That trigger can be sight, sound, smell or touch.  When triggered, the original chemical formulation is again dumped into the body and we experience the event again.  The good news is, this chemistry can be resolved; thus resolving the reaction and allowing the brain-body connection to return to normal.  

      Other reactions that may be attributed to unresolved trauma have to do with chronic belief systems about self worth.  The person may believe they are bad, have no value or are unimportant to others.  They don't see themselves as worthy of being loved.  They may also take on excess responsibility, believe that everything is their fault or apologize for their behavior more than is appropriate.  Depending on what age the child experienced the trauma, these behaviors may have caused the person to become stuck in a stage of development known as ego-centrism.  Simply put, during this stage of a child's development they believe that whatever happens around them happens because of them.  This is why we have learned to tell young children that their parent's failed relationship is not their fault.  During this stage, children can believe that if bad things happen to others around them, it is their fault somehow.  Carried into adulthood, this manifests in control, being overly responsible, perfectionistic behavior and even what we know to be Type A behavior.  Of course, not all Type A behavior is the result of trauma, but when trauma exists in the background of a Type A personality, it is worth looking at.

      In my next post, I'll explore some of the other symptoms of unresolved trauma.  If you recognize any of these symptoms and they are causing problems in your life, you may want to seek the help of a professional counselor who is skilled in trauma therapy.  Having a support network around you is very helpful as you take on these issues.  Just remember, there is hope and there is help to move beyond these things.  Explore the possibilities today.  


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