Have you ever said, or thought of saying to someone, “I need to warn you, I’m crazy?” It’s common among people who have histories of trauma to have a perception of themselves as being crazy.
This sense of an individual seeing themselves as crazy doesn’t mean they feel that they should be in a mental hospital! However, during times of personal crises, a person with a history of trauma, can see that as an attractive option to go with.
More often than not, an individual with such a history of trauma laughs about being crazy (when they’re in a good mood), and refers more to the patterns of feelings and behaviors that seem to come out eventually no matter how many times a person changes their life and starts something new.
What are these feelings and behaviors, that no matter how much effort is used to control them, will eventually pop up and feel crazy?
These are words that people with histories of attachment trauma have used to try and explain, or describe, themselves to others. In my experience, I have worked with many who struggled with Attachment Disorder and some of these have come up during conversations with friends, co-workers, patients, or kids; some have come from readings on Adult Children of Alcoholics or Other Dysfunctional Families.
The Personalities of Trauma Histories
- This is a laundry list of the personalities of trauma histories:
- We are too much or too little.
- We never tend to stay too long in the healthy and stable middle ground, because we quickly find it boring.
- We are too cold or too hot.
- We either love something or hate something.
- We are too close or too distant.
- We are all or nothing, except when our partner is all or nothing, and then we become very critical of them for being all or nothing.
- We overperform or underperform.
- We are too clingy or too guarded.
- We overreact or underreact.
- We fight or freeze, but in some way respond intensely to situations.
- We approach new projects with a passion that takes over our lives, or we never start anything.
- We are too stressed or too relaxed.
- We are too open with people or too closed off.
- We have too few boundaries or have too many walls up.
- We are co-dependent or excessively independent, but never in healthy interdependence with others.
- We are too needy or don’t need anybody else at all.
- We feel too much or we don’t feel anything at all.
- We either tenaciously figure out how to make something happen, or we don’t even try.
- We vacillate between feeling sorry for ourselves and beating ourselves up.
- We are terribly afraid of both abandonment and intimacy.
- We tend to hold back our true feelings until our true feelings come out as an explosive volcano.
- We don’t know how to do relationships, and feel like we have to guess what normal is.
- We either struggle to choose our words carefully or we are a exploding mouth volcano.
- We are either too stressed or too bored.
- We are either helpless and need you to do things for me or we are domineering and controlling.
- We care deeply and would die for you or don’t care at all.
- We are either madly in love and see no wrong or are resentful and see everything wrong.
- There are times we feel like an old soul and other times like a little lost kid.
- Life is either thrilling or exhausting.
- We don’t do anything until we flip the switch, organize, and do everything.
Whatever we feel, we feel it to the extreme – super excited, terribly depressed, boiling mad, or stable contentment would be experienced as boring, and so these wide fluctuations in emotional states keep us feeling alive. To keep life interesting for everyone else around us, these intense emotions switch from one to the other in a split second.
Crazy? Did someone say I was crazy??
There are moments where we feel sane, normal, and life seems to be going okay. However, something can happen that can make us totally react, and next thing we know, we’re acting crazy and can’t seem to stop, but don’t even know where it came from. We don’t feel like ourselves sometimes, and often we don’t even know who that true self is.
I can say that I’m crazy, but don’t you dare say it. If you say such a thing, I could never be your friend anymore, because you have deeply hurt my soul!
If I feel that somebody or something is against me, believe me, in those situations, the other person, group, or corporation is the crazy one; it’s never me who’s crazy in those situations.
Sometimes though, I don’t care enough about myself and I spend too much time around people who say I’m crazy. Deep down, I know I’m different and will resign myself to a life of feeling alone, even if I’m surrounded by people, because who would ever really want to be around a crazy person.
Crazy? Yes, and though sometimes I laugh about it and poke fun at myself, deep down I don’t want to be this way, but I can’t seem to find any other way to be.
I love that I can love deeply, but my love is also messy.
Is this how things will always be? Will this ever change?
Healing Is Possible for Histories of Trauma
The good news is that if you can’t relate to any of the above descriptions, you don’t have a history of trauma that your system was unable to process and heal by itself.
It’s also good news if you can relate to the above traits, because healing is possible!
Everyone has access to tools that’ll set them on the path to healing. The degree to which healing happens is dependent on how easily a person has access to the resources and how diligent they are about utilizing them.
Our biological systems are wired to heal as much as they can on their own, so with education and perseverance, a person can completely change their life and their patterns to something that will better help them.
With work of many trauma professionals over the decades, we now understand that emotional states are really symptoms of what’s going on in the nervous system. Thus, the work of healing from trauma involves less psychology and traditional talk therapy, and more focus on the nervous system.
Emotional States Reflect Nervous System States
Emotional states reflect the the nervous system.
The patterns of our emotional states, are also the patterns of our nervous systems. This is very helpful, because we can gain a lot of information about the nervous system by taking an objective, while looking at our emotional responses.
Just as emotional states represented in the personality traits above were rarely stable or in the middle ground, the nervous system is either in high activation or low activation. The nervous system is only in the middle ground as it’s passing from one extreme activation state to the next.
The States of the Nervous System
A trauma is a situation that overwhelms the brain’s and body’s biological systems ability to respond.
After a trauma, if the event and activation from that event is not processed, the normal rhythm of the biological survival response system is disrupted, and it gets stuck in patterns of response.
When the nervous system is stuck in a pattern of response, our emotions are stuck in that same pattern. By looking at one’s emotional and behavioral patterns in one’s life and relationships, we are able to better understand how the nervous system operates and why it gets stuck.
There are two survival states of the nervous system where it can get stuck after trauma. The details may look different for each individual, but the general theme applies to everyone dealing with ongoing effects of childhood or prior trauma.
The two survival states of the nervous system are:
- The sympathetic
- The parasympathetic dorsal vagus.
The sympathetic is the active survival response with a lot of energy, and it’s the “I want to live” reaction: muscles will be fully engaged, the body comes alive, and we fight or run.
The parasympathetic dorsal vagus response is the passive survival response associated with a collapse of energy and the “I don’t care what happens to me” response: the body shuts down and there is a numbing effect both physically and emotionally.
The Chronic Effects of Trauma on the Nervous System’s Survival Responses
The chronic effects of trauma on a nervous system is that the healthy rhythm of these states with the relaxed and social state (parasympathetic ventral vagal – rest, digest, and socialize) gets disrupted.
Unresolved trauma keeps a nervous system constantly responding to threats, because the system feels like it’s still under stress. Therefore, a little more stress is all it takes to throw the system back into full survival response.
A trauma also makes the nervous system more prone to go into the freeze response.
This freeze response was a helpful survival coping mechanism at the initial threat when a situation was truly overwhelming, because one couldn’t fight back or run away. However, most of life’s current triggers aren’t life threatening, but the nervous system is still primed to perceive everything as a threat and respond with a freeze.
The Freeze Survival Response Protective Traits
There are some great things about the freeze response!
First, it puts a person in this state of mind, “I don’t care,” which is protective when one truly is helpless! If I don’t care, no matter what happens, I won’t be hurt or upset. It’s a state that conserves emotional energy.
The freeze response flat lines the emotional response to life so that nothing bothers or upsets it, because it’s already “dead.”
The freeze response does have a conservation of physical energy requirements of the body as it shuts down non-essential body functions in order to go into a hibernation. The digestive tract and musculoskeletal systems are affected quite a bit as digestion shuts down and muscles go weak. Most chronic fatigue probably has a freeze survival response component to it.
The freeze response also has a physical anesthesia effect, where the awareness and sensations in the body aren’t being registered. These are all very protective mechanisms for when one is truly overwhelmed and their life is in danger.
However, when the nervous system stays chronically in a state of freeze, or at least in a partial freeze response, (or when it continues to go there every time a life stress occurs) it can have a lot of negative effects on one’s life and relationships.
The Negative Side of The Freeze Response
We have looked at the helpful aspects of the freeze response, and why it’s a protective survival mechanism that our systems can access when our other survival mechanism (fight or flight) is overwhelmed.
However, the negative consequences of the freeze response is that if it’s not processed and the survival response cycle is not completed, one’s nervous systems can get stuck in that chronic freeze state.
The freeze state is incompatible with living life, for it’s the exact opposite. While it’s a life conserving coping mechanism, it’s also a state of collapse and hibernation rather than growth and advancement.
For this reason, we develop a love-hate relationship with our freeze response. We love it, because it’s numbing effects can help us deal with life, so that our emotions are less intense. But at the same time, we realize we can’t deal with life in a better way, because we aren’t really dealing with life; we’re just hibernating. When we come out of the freeze hibernation, all of those problems and feelings are waiting for us.
We don’t like the feeling of the collapse of the freeze response, because it’s a vulnerable place to be, where people or life can take advantage of us.
So we often find ourselves fighting the freeze response by creating excitement and drama in our lives in order to keep enough activation and adrenalin.
The negative side of the freeze response is the back and forth between extreme emotions as we go into and out of the freeze response. It can also be this chronic state of stress that we use to find a way to stay out of boredom and meaninglessness of the freeze.
However, in whatever state we are in, whether passive (freeze) or active (fight, flight) survival coping mechanisms, the feelings feel very real in the moment, and so thinking they’re our reality, we act on those feelings.
By acting on all of our intense feelings, behavior patterns develop that reflect this cycling between the nervous system survival states and the emotional states of hot or cold, numb or intense.
Crazy? Yes, one of the chronic effects of trauma is that it makes a person feel, look, and act crazy.
Awareness of the cause of why one might feel crazy changes the whole game, because for the first time, a person who has believed that they are crazy, can finally see that they’re actually normal, at least for a person with a history of trauma.
With awareness there’s hope that things can be different, because it isn’t inherently me that is defective, it was the trauma that caused all of this!
This awareness is the first step in healing.
This awareness is power for a person who has felt powerless and helpless!
I encourage you to not only keep growing your own awareness about your nervous system, any signs of trauma that you may have, and how it shows up in your emotional and behavioral patterns, but also extend that awareness and understanding to others, because it’s all around us.
In Health and Healing,
Herman, Judith (1992). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1st Edition; New York, NY.
Hoskinson, Stephen. “Foundation for Human Enrichment, Somatic Experiencing Beginning 3 Training Lecture,” San Diego, 2015
Woititz, Janet (1985). Struggle for Intimacy. Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, FL.