Trauma is everywhere and most people don’t realize they’re living with the effects of trauma. By understanding the various effects of trauma and how it looks, we can more easily identify trauma in ourselves and others.
With this awareness of trauma, we’re then empowered to do something about it, rather than continue to react to ourselves and others when the trauma patterns pop up in our lives. Awareness of the effects of trauma allows us to approach reactive trauma patterns with compassion rather than judgement or fear.
So let’s get started!
Trauma Is Like…
Trauma is like standing in a bathtub with ¼ inch water, but feeling like you’re drowning.
A Classic Story of Trauma
So, you want a bath. Perhaps you’re dirty and want a good soak. Perhaps you have sore and achy muscles and would like to relax in warm soapy water.
You’re really looking forward to this bath! You turn on the water while you start to get things ready. You turn the hall light on and turn the bathroom light off. You light you’re favorite scented candle. You put on some relaxing music and turn your phone to “Do Not Disturb.”
This bath is going to be so good!
You step into the bathtub, and you feel the warm water on your toes. You wiggle your toes and the anticipation turns into actual enjoyment of the experience. This is exactly what you had wanted!
As you start to feel the water rise though, you start to feel panicky. It begins in your chest where you can feel your heart starting to beat faster and harder, and your breathing gets faster and more shallow.
“This is strange,” you think. You begin to have an inner dialogue with yourself. “This is stupid. What’s wrong with me? I need a bath. I want a bath. There is nothing going wrong here.”
So, like many times before, you dismiss and override your feelings.
Pattern of Trauma: Overriding Gut Instincts
This pattern of overriding feelings with thinking is classic for a person with a history of trauma and for someone who hasn’t been able to process that trauma through their nervous system.
Because a person with a history of trauma is still wired for quickly assessing threats, their gut instincts can be quicker and stronger than other people. A person without a history of trauma has learned to listen to their gut instinct, and this instinct is in alignment with their thoughts about other people or situations.
A person with a history of trauma still has everything disorganized, so those feelings don’t match their thoughts, and both feelings and thoughts are confusing and run in a cycle.
After a period of time, a person with a history of trauma will begin to not trust their own feelings and thoughts. Their feelings and thoughts have not matched reality, and has led them to make some pretty bad decisions or do some pretty crazy things in response to their thoughts and feelings.
Our biology is designed to survive by assessing threats through our senses like our gut instinct. Overriding one’s own gut instincts is a pretty advanced survival coping mechanism. This developed coping mechanism also has to be pretty strong to override the fundamental survival response in place!
Let’s go back to the bath where you’re standing in the bathtub with warm water rising.
As you override your anxious feeling with your thoughts, the bath no longer becomes relaxing, but since you know a bath is supposed to be relaxing, you pretend that you’re enjoying yourself.
However, as every person with a history of trauma knows, you can only override your emotions for so long until they come spilling out! You ignore and dismiss the rising panic as if these feelings were outside of you, not inside your own body.
The water continues to rise, it’s now up to your ankles. There is the sound of the water as it comes out of the faucet and splashes the water already in the bathtub, the steam is rising from the warm water, the candle, the music, the dim lights… this is a perfectly relaxing bath, except it’s not for you.
Your panic has just reached its threshold and can no longer be held down or ignored. It comes out in an unmanageable mess now!
Panic hits everyone differently. Maybe you start running in place in the bathtub, screaming.
People come to the door, knock, and ask worriedly if you’re okay and what’s wrong. You don’t know what’s wrong! You just know you have to get out and now.
The anxiety is at its peak. You can’t grab your towel fast enough. You run out of the bathroom and go to your room where you curl up into a ball hugging your knees into your chest.
The tears start coming now, and they feel hot as they course down your cheeks. You don’t want to talk to anybody, and they slowly leave you alone as you ignore their questions and push their hands away.
You hear someone has turned off the water. The silence is now so loud. This isn’t relaxing either!
You eventually calm down, and begin to loosen your grip on your knees. You want to move, but you also feel so exhausted by the whole situation. Your legs and arms feel so heavy. “When did I begin to have fatigue,” you think.
Although your head is still in a fog like state of “what just happened,” the heaviness slowly wears off, the tears have dried, and it all begins to feel like it’s all gone. The events are all a little cloudy and you feel like it’s sifting through cobwebs as your brain tries to think about what to do, especially when you think about what happened.
You walk back into the bathroom to hang up your towel. You look at the bathtub where the water is still sitting.
The water is cold, the candle is unlit, the music is off and the lights are on, but really, nothing has changed.
You ask yourself the big question, “What was so scary?”
Then the shame hits you as you begin to second guess yourself and your instincts: “Did I just make all that up? Was I actually not drowning at all? How could I have been – now I see the water was so shallow!”
The shame is a rapid progression of a mixture of thoughts and feelings that goes from “I messed this up again” to “I am a mess; there’s something wrong with me.”
You come to the conclusion that there’s something so wrong with you that you can never be like other people and just take a bath. You feel so different from others. You feel that they are normal, and you are, well, not. And therefore, can never take baths again.
This is the fragmentation of relationships and connection that occurs after trauma and continues as a result of unprocessed trauma.
You carry the heavy burden on your shoulders as you settle into accepting that you are and always will be different from others, you will feel ashamed of being different, and desperately fear that others will also see you as being different. So, you decide to wear a mask around others, so they can never see the real you, causing you to stay on the lonely side of disconnection.
From the Trauma Perspective
From the trauma perspective, this is actually a very normal response to a situation that reminds us of a previous life-threatening event. There’s a reason we can’t override this response, ignore and dismiss it as if it weren’t really there.
Our biology is wired for this type of survival response, it isn’t crazy, but actually makes a lot of sense.
The Story Of the Trauma
We saw a classic story of the long term effects of trauma, but now let’s look at the story of the trauma. By looking at how our nervous system is wired, we’ll come to perfectly understand not only our biological responses to future situations, but also other’s.
The individual in this story had a near drowning experience in a bathtub as a young child. This experience was very early in their life, so they don’t actually have any memory of it.
Even so, some traumatic events are so fragmenting for the system that they have no memory of the event even though it happened at an age at which they should have memory.
However, as we have seen, whether the brain allows access to a memory or not, the biology has memory of that event. Our biology responds immediately to threats it’s been exposed to in the past without waiting for the slower and more logical parts of our brain to kick in.
Our biology responds to sensations that feel similar to those events in the past that were traumatizing.
In this story, there were multiple sensations that the nervous system and brain could have recognize as the same sensations as were felt with the near-drowning experience. The rising warm water, the steam, being in a bathtub, and perhaps even the low lights, music and candle were all sensations that were similar feelings as when they nearly drowned as a small child.
This response of the nervous system to begin panicking makes complete sense now. It doesn’t matter that there’s only ankle deep water in the tub, the nervous system and brain collect these sensations and recognize them as the same feeling as when they nearly died before; the wired biological response to survive will trump logic every time.
Until the initial traumatic event is processed, the nervous system’s and brain’s alarm system will also be set for the earliest signs of these sensations. It’s a really neat protective system in place!
However, this protective system that alarms at very early signs of sensations that don’t appear as logical can make you look and feel crazy.
This is a classic sign of trauma: a reaction that is out of proportion to the response that is needed.
Attachment and Relational Trauma
It’s easy to recognize trauma when you’re watching a person standing in ankle deep water and are reacting as if they’re going to drown.
How does early childhood attachment and relational trauma show up in our lives?
In similar fashion, early childhood attachment and relational trauma is based on sensations that we get as we interact with other people.
In healthy attachments in which an infant develops a secure attachment with their mother, the sensations that an infant has are all relational. It’s what the baby feels in their body as they giggle and play with mom. It’s what the baby feels in their body as they get so angry, but the mother is there being calm and strong. It’s what the baby feels in their body as they feel loved, heard, and understood on a gut level.
In an insecure attachment, an infant has very different body sensations as a result of their interactions with the people and world around them. They develop gut feelings of being overlooked, too needy, or too much, different, unlovable, overpowered, or taken advantage of.
In all future relationships or interactions with the world, when a situation happens that gives them any of these same gut feelings, they will respond with a reaction that is stronger than what the current situation requires. It’s an immediate reaction, and their biology will either go to aggression or they’ll go into shut down mode.
This is the dilemma of a person with an insecure attachment from early childhood attachment trauma: they don’t feel good being alone and isolated, but they don’t feel good in relationships because eventually, the other person does or doesn’t do something that gives them the same feeling they had as an infant.
They will tend to place blame or find some fault with their significant other, and because they feel like their survival depends on it, they’ll sabotage or end that relationship.
Then they’re alone again, and they’ll look back when they’re calmer and think, “What was so scary?”
The belief that they’re incapable of having stable and healthy relationships gets ingrained even further from each experience.
Trauma Patterns Show Up In All Areas of Life
Jobs, finances, and parenting are the other three common areas of life where trauma patterns show up, because of the sensations they trigger.
Perhaps a person is afraid of losing their job, or maybe they feel overlooked or taken advantage of at work. If insecurity due to loss or being taken advantage were part of their early childhood experience, this person will find themselves starting to act out in some part of their life to manage the survival panic that these relationship sensations at work trigger.
Finances is another common cause of the sensation “I don’t have enough,” or “I’m not going to make it” that are body sensations that children with early attachment trauma experience.
Parenting brings a whole host of relationship dynamics and body sensations! I guarantee you that if you have some of these core body sensations of being different, unlovable, overlooked, or taken advantage of, these sensations will be triggered in your dynamics with your children!
Understanding that trauma is at the core of a reaction to a situation that is more than what is needed to handle the situation allows us to start to see trauma everywhere.
It’s common to respond to others who are overreacting with logic, by talking it out, by telling them how crazy and stupid they are and give them a reality check! In fact, we often respond to ourselves this way when we want to change something about ourselves that we don’t like.
Shaming ourselves or another person only drives more trauma reactions.
As we can see from this story of the bathtub, logic cannot override our biology and its drive to survive.
Perhaps a different approach to ourselves and others will help us feel safe enough to look at where we have trauma reactions showing up, and then use that awareness to go back and work with someone to process that trauma.
Can you look back at times on your life when you over reacted or couldn’t see reality at the time?
Have you thought that you were crazy because of your reactions and patterns in life?
You’re not crazy!
There is hope, and healing is possible!
Want to heal from trauma? Schedule a consultation with me so we can work towards a complete recovery.