Updated: Oct 11, 2019
Many of the clients that walk through my door are frustrated and angry at themselves because they feel totally overwhelmed by seemingly small and inconsequential details of everyday life. At times they can be crippled by anxiety or frozen by deep depression, and they judge themselves harshly because of this.
They often experience a deep shame because they don’t understand why they can’t cope with the world in way that they believe others do.
Conversations like this are common:
Client: “What’s wrong with me? What can’t I just live my life without feeling frightened or sad or feeling like I need to please people all of the time?”
Me: “What you’re experiencing is a completely normal psychological and physiological response to trauma.”
Client: “Trauma? But nothing bad has ever happened to me?!”
They are usually willing to accept that people who have been physically harmed, whose life has been put at risk, who have been beaten, raped or bullied have experienced trauma. They can often understand why people who have been through such horrific experiences might struggle with their mental health; it makes sense to them that these events might leave an emotional scar.
But they haven’t experienced any of these things so they are just broken, right?
WRONG! Trauma happens when we experience something deeply distressing, and we become traumatised when we struggle to move past that experience, and it continues to have an impact on our lives. Trauma comes in many shapes and sizes. Here are 5 ways that we might have experienced trauma without even realising it.
1. Childhood Neglect
When we are children, we depend on our parents for our very survival. They clean us, feed us, provide us with shelter (a home) and warmth (clothes). They give us love and affection both physically and through their words and actions. These things are all needed for our survival. Without them we would die, or at the very least fail to thrive.
If we grow up without receiving any one of these things, or in an environment where we aren’t sure if or when these things will be provided, our body can automatically enter survival mode and we can get stuck there.
2. Witnessing Violence and Aggressive Behaviour as a Child
If we grow up in a home where aggression, threats, violence and bullying take place, even if this violence or aggression isn’t aimed at us, our body can automatically enter survival mode.
When we are frightened cortisol and adrenaline course through our body to enable us to run or fight. As a child, home is supposed to be our safe place and we can’t run or fight when we witness frightening things there. We have nowhere to go and we rely on the people behaving in a frightening way for our survival. If we can’t release that angry or frightened energy, we learn to live with it. It becomes normal to us to live in a state of fear, and we can become stuck there.
3. Living with a Parent with Mental Health or Substance Misuse Difficulties
As children, we look to our parents to understand how to navigate the world. If our parents have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms, we often do too.
Parents who struggle with their own mental health or substance misuse might also be unpredictable, unreliable and might find it difficult to put their children’s needs first. This isn’t about blame, often they are in a lot of pain themselves and they are coping in the best way they can. However, it can mean that as children we don’t get our basic needs met either physically or emotionally, and this can lead our body to enter a survival state.
4. Having Parents who Divorce, or the Loss of a Parent
Having parents who are present and engaged with us is essential for our survival as children for the reasons outlined above; they ensure that our basic needs are met.
When, as children, we experience the loss of a parent whether this is through divorce, bereavement or incarceration in prison for example, we learn that we are vulnerable, and that people can leave us. This knowledge can affect us deeply.
If this happens to us we might learn to ‘people please’ or ‘fawn’ at an early age in order to ensure that we keep parents or other loved ones around. Even if we have other people in our lives that care for us deeply, we might start to see the world as a more dangerous place where people can leave. Understanding that this is a possibility can lead us to start to see danger cues in the world and in our relationships where there might not be any.
5. If our Parents have experienced Trauma
There is lots of evidence that children of parents who have been traumatised also exhibit trauma symptoms. It’s not completely clear if this is passed on genetically or if parents who are traumatised teach their children through their actions and behaviour that the world is a dangerous place, it may be a combination of both. Either way, transgenerational trauma exists.
This means that if we have parents who has been traumatised we are more prone to experiencing mental health difficulties. This can be particularly hard to understand if we haven’t experienced trauma directly.
What does this all mean for us?
When we have experienced any of the above we learn at an early stage that the world can be a dangerous place. Our body knows this, the mammal inside us senses it and puts our body to work in order to keep us safe, it enters a survival state.
When we are in a survival state our body and mind are hyper-vigilant and look for danger everywhere, this can explain symptoms of anxiety. It can be hard or even impossible to access rational thought when we are in this state. Sometimes we become so overwhelmed by the stress of this that we can shut down, this can explain symptoms of depression.
We can get stuck in this state. When we do, our brain tries to make sense of why we feel or behave the way that we do because our brain’s purpose is to understand and make meaning. If we don’t feel that we have a reason to behave in the ways that we do we can develop stories to explain this. Sadly, our brains aren’t always right, they often jump to conclusions if they don’t have all the information and we can start to label ourselves as deficient, incapable, worthless, stupid, or a hopeless case.
You aren’t a hopeless case. You simply need your body and brain to understand why you respond the way that you do to the world, and to learn to access and develop your own safety cues instead of seeing danger everywhere. You need to learn to live in the moment, and that whatever has happened to you in the past, that you are safe in the here and now.
The good news is that we can teach our brain and our body to respond differently to the world. A good counsellor or therapist will be able to help you with this. Once you let go of self-judgement and approach your own experiences with a sense of curiosity instead you can start to heal.