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  • Writer's pictureEve Kagan

15 Signs of Unresolved Trauma

Over the weekend I attended the 31st Annual (and first virtual!) International Trauma Conference hosted by the Trauma Research Foundation and Bessel van der Kolk. The conference featured the leading authorities in trauma research and treatment.

Trauma is defined as a unique individual experience of a single event (car accident, sexual assault, natural disaster), a series of events (physical/emotional/sexual abuse, domestic/intimate partner violence), or a set of enduring conditions (war, community violence, oppression, consistent physical/emotional/sexual abuse) in which the individual experiences a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity, and the complete overwhelm of the system (fear, helplessness, horror). When trauma occurs you are unable to process the emotions of the experience — unresolved trauma has lasting negative effects.

Trauma impacts every aspect of our lives, right down to the structure and functionality of the brain. This is especially true for early childhood trauma. Maltreatment in childhood (abuse, neglect, and/or loss) results in biological scars: higher reactivity to stress, low immune functioning, changes in the brain, all of which make us vulnerable to disease and disorder later in life. When trauma occurs in childhood, it often goes unprocessed and unresolved. There is stigma and shame associated with childhood trauma. Many families, communities, and/or cultures enforce a code of silence around abuse and neglect: Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.

After trauma you live in a different universe because trauma changes the way you perceive the world. When a traumatized person relives trauma the verbal area of the brain shuts down: there is no language, no way to convey what is happening, or what has happened, in a coherent way. Your sense of self is also profoundly altered by trauma: survivors report distorted beliefs about the self (“I’m a bad person”) and the body (“my body does not belong to me”). Survivors may feel irreparably damaged and isolated in their experience. As adults, we often minimize or dismiss our past pain. And yet, these old wounds impact our lives in countless invisible ways.

With so much silence, shame, and solitude, it can be hard to know if you have experienced trauma. The following are 15 Signs of Unresolved Trauma:

  1. Recurrent anxiety or panic attacks

  2. Extreme fears that arise without provocation

  3. Intrusive thoughts, memories, flashbacks, nightmares

  4. Avoidance of people, places, or things associated with the trauma and/or emotional responses

  5. Dissociation: spacing out, losing time, missing time, feeling outside your body or as if the world around you is not real

  6. Dysfunctional relationships: inability to trust, avoidance, or brief intense love/hate dynamics

  7. Overwhelming feeling of shame: an innate belief that you are bad, worthless, defective, unlovable

  8. Difficulty with emotions: rapidly changing and/or intense feelings, avoidance or numbing of emotions

  9. Feeling detached or “dead inside”

  10. Trouble sleeping: inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or fear associated with sleep

  11. Hypervigilance: constantly feeling on-guard, under threat, or hyper-aware of your surroundings

  12. Chronic or repeated suicidal thoughts or actions

  13. Chronic or ongoing depression

  14. Self-harm: self-injury./mutilation, addiction, disordered eating

  15. All-or-nothing thinking

With all of this information about the damage caused by trauma, it may feel like you are doomed to a life forever consumed with suffering. In spite of trauma wreaking havoc on the body and mind, there is hope! Throughout our lives the brain retains the ability to change and grow (neuroplasticity and neurogenesis for all my fellow science nerds), which means new pathways of understanding and learning can be created. Trauma memories can be resolved and integrated, healthy habits of thinking and being can develop, a trusting relationship with your body can emerge, and new narratives can be written that focus on your strength, resilience, and agency. Healing is possible and trauma-informed therapy can help. You are not alone.

For more information about therapy with Eve, visit here.

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