Alyce didn’t understand why, but the thought of getting trapped in the parking lot created a sudden sense of panic. She wasn’t always anxious, but when she did become upset or nervous, it was sort of over the top. She also had disturbing dreams of her home being broken into when she was sleeping. And when her siblings reminisced about family vacations spent with cousins, she found herself with a pounding headache. Other things bothered her too, like leaving her daughter with babysitters. When she saw a movie in which a child was sexually assaulted, she wondered if anything had happened to her.
Sometimes we push traumatic events out of conscious awareness because we don’t have the resources to cope with them. Traumas like incest are often simply too disruptive to a child to deal with, and the best strategy in the moment is to forget about or repress them.
Other times we don’t recognize that our symptoms are the result of traumatic stress because we haven’t identified a remembered event as traumatic. Perhaps others downplayed the importance of it, wanting us to feel better and not “wallow” in something painful. Also an event that may be experienced as traumatic to the nervous system may be accepted within a given context as normal (e.g., battering a spouse) or necessary (e.g., medical interventions).
You may not consciously recall suffering from trauma, but if your nervous system has been overwhelmed and you’ve felt panic, helplessness or feared for your life or sanity, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress.
Although each traumatic stressor leaves a unique footprint, here are some clues that can help you recognize traumatic stress.
A common signs of trauma:
- Overreacting in situations and not understanding why
- Disturbing images that intrude into consciousness and seem to come from out of nowhere
- Feeling that you sort of fade away at times or don’t feel in your body. Often at such times your brain doesn’t work normally. It’s like when your computer freezes up and everything is on hold (These are indications of dissociation.)
- Feeling overly sensitive and easily overwhelmed
- A sense that you are running away from something, often by staying too busy to really know what is going on with you
- Feeling that it is difficult to settle down, once you’ve become upset
- Feeling that it is hard to get your life together, blaming yourself and wondering what is wrong with you
- Noticing that you don’t feel safe a fair amount of the time
- Significant gaps in memory, sometimes covering years
- Anger, sometimes turned against yourself and expressed in self-damaging ways
Unresolved trauma can lead not only to conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but commonly to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders and other addictions, emotional numbing, chronic tension in the body, and medical problems that seem to defy explanation or treatment, especially those involving chronic pain and autoimmune disorders.
What Can I Do?
If you suspect that you may be suffering from unresolved trauma, three things you might do are:
- Educate yourself about trauma so you recognize it. There are many good books that can help you, as well as articles available on the web and elsewhere.
- If you suspect a particular type of trauma that is often repressed (such as early sexual assault), learn the aftereffects that others in that situation experience. Pay attention to how you feel as you come into contact with this information.
- Talk with a therapist trained in trauma work. Many therapists have no special training in trauma and aren’t skilled in recognizing or treating it.
Be kind to yourself. If you are suffering from unresolved trauma and haven’t recognized this, it’s not your fault. No one else has recognized it either. The good news is that you can do something about it now.
Originally published in Self Help Magazine.