By: Jessica Johns-Green, MA, LPC
5 Misconceptions about the Effects of Trauma
5 misconceptions about the effects of trauma! What are they? Let’s talk about it!
When the unthinkable happens, our body is built to survive. The nervous system goes into high gear, employing its ingenious methods of getting us through to face another day. The idea that trauma affects us long afterward is widely accepted, but what the hangover of trauma looks like can seem confusing. Oftentimes you might have assumptions of what a traumatized person looks like. You might think they seem upset, afraid, shaky, teary, zoned out, or even dazed in a far-off memory from the past. While this can be, trauma and the nervous systems help, tends to look different than what is often expected. This is exactly where some of those top 5 misconceptions begin!
Misconceptions about trauma are essential. This is because the idea that we might not be that bad often keeps us trapped in trauma responses. We don’t look like the trembling heap in a corner that we believe trauma should look like. We may even be doing things that are opposite to every expectation. This is more common than most people imagine. Leading many people dealing with traumatic experiences to slip under the radar of even close friends and family. Follow along for five trauma coping styles that look different than what we commonly expect.
Out of the top 5 misconceptions, this one is a big one! Significant life events often drive big choices that lead to amazing things. Traumatizing events can be an invitation to see life differently. It can elevate us to new levels we would never have expected after hurt and pain. But there are functional and dysfunctional levels to this pattern. It can be helpful to take a new path, to be ourselves, or rediscover our purpose through trauma. On the other hand, being busy gives our brain little space to process the emotions keeping us trapped in a trauma response.
There are many rewards associated with putting the rest of life on hold and giving all our attention to a job, a responsibility, or a career. The balance between joy and work gets blurred when the balance tips from helpful to unhelpful. We can get burnt out or compromise healthy boundaries for achievement. We pin all our happiness and self-worth on doing things right – never being satisfied with good enough. And certainly not tolerating slacking off or failure.
Hard-work is praised and may carry rewards that make it attractive for more reasons than just its ability to distance us from traumatic responses. If we get caught in this response, it may feel like we are doing what is good for our family or us. It may not become apparent until later that all the hard work was a distraction – a way to fight off the alarm bell going off in our nervous system.
2. Eating Disorders
What we do with food can bring our nervous system back to life or switch it off, depending on what we need to cope with the effects of trauma. Food and eating patterns can be used to numb the nervous system when it’s overwhelmed. Food-related behaviors can also energize and revitalize when it’s detached and suppressed.
Like the rewards that blur the role of achievement as a trauma response, eating issues are linked with body image and body changes. The constant pressures we feel to fulfill a certain standard of appearance can become an intense focus that trauma will be forgotten. Additionally, society reinforces the concept of food as a comfort to the extent that we see it, as usual, to switch off emotions with food.
Like overworking and achievement, I have wondered with clients about the usefulness of being restless and hyperactive, especially when depression and pain are knocking at the door. Restriction of calories – not eating enough – takes an enormous amount of willpower and focus. In effect, our attentional tank gets used up on one thing leaving no room for unpleasant trauma to take up space. There are also theories that anorexia might cause nervous, restless energy; read more about that here.
3. Sensation Seeking
It is difficult enough when we can pinpoint the thing that sets off the alarm bell in our nervous system. Even with cause, turning off the alarm is not always easy. There are also forms of trauma that are less obvious. The alarm bell rings so much that it feels average – even comfortable. When life is calm and chaos-free, it feels wrong and sets some in search of something to make it loud again. Risky sex, tumultuous relationships, adrenaline-fueled pursuits, dangerous sports, or even picking fights can be related to trauma.
Growing up in families that seem fine on the surface but where basic emotional needs are not met – when a parent withdraws, is self-absorbed, or unpredictable, among other things – can be common scenarios where children get used to the inner alarm bell ringing. In situations where chaos feels more normal than calm, sensation-seeking might be a trauma response.
4. Mood Swings
Happy to sad to worried regularly? The ability to recognize and regulate emotion comes with a balanced nervous system. While it’s normal for emotions too fluctuate and not be predictable, it signals a problem. Especially if we regularly feel we are at the mercy of extreme mood variations.
The healthy wave of emotions has been thrown out of balance and extreme. It can often signify that the nervous system is swinging between high alert (fight/flight mode) and turning off (numb/submit mood). If there has been a source of trauma, it can be valuable to recognize these swings as the body’s attempt to regulate rather than us losing control. It will try to find ways to get us back down when it is super ramped up. At times, when we are not aware of what’s happening, we do things that make us overshoot and get low – which is uncomfortable and leads to a swing in the other direction. Developing emotional awareness and flexible real-world coping skills is valuable in these cases.
5. People Pleasing
We have reached the last of the 5 misconceptions! While most people are familiar with the fight/flight response to anxiety and even trauma, we might be less aware of the term ‘fawn’ as a trauma response. We are biologically geared to attach to others as a way to create safety. Babies look for caregivers when afraid, and as adults, we find ways to stick people to us as a means to feel better, less scared, and anxious.
Outwardly this might look like just being nice. But there is a difference between kindness and generosity that is motivated by compassion and actions that are driven by a need not to be rejected. Trauma can take a toll on self-worth, making some feel unworthy of love without much effort. Attach or fawn reactions to trauma might look like striving to keep unhealthy people close even when this causes harm mentally or physically. It may also show up as trying to fit in even when it means things that go against our values. Or churning worries about what people think of us. This trauma response makes it feel ok to sacrifice a lot for other people’s sake- it may be impossible to say no.
Special note for people in helping professions: For some, being able to read and predict people was – and is – a way to feel safe. Many therapists and people who are drawn into helping professions have learned to deal with their trauma through attach/fawn behaviors. Making them excellent empaths, but they lack the skills to manage their needs healthily.
I can attest that my journey into psychology was driven by the desire to understand people who hurt me. Although it has been a rewarding career, eventually, I had to reckon that knowing the answers to help others didn’t always mean I was applying them to myself. I also formed intense relationships with others while still keeping them at a distance. Like others who fall into this category as a way to cope with trauma, I had to ask myself questions. I questioned what healthy relationships looked like and whether I was working towards them or just treading water hoping to not upset or anger others. My healing required me to look closely at the relationships in my life. I also looked at how vulnerable and honest I was in them.
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Trauma can be debilitating but it is also something you can come back from. So, now that we have gone over 5 misconceptions, if you identify with any, reach out for help. It can feel overwhelming to focus on the problem and finding solutions can feel impossible; however, you are not alone. If you need help, one of the therapists at The Counseling Center at Cinco Ranch can help! To begin counseling in Katy Texas, follow these three steps:
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